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'Bittersweet' Science

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Immunologist Ralph Steinman was one of three researchers awarded this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery of dendritic cells. The prize is "bittersweet,"
ScienceInsider's Jennifer Couzin-Frankel says, as Steinman became the first winner to pass away days before the announcement of his win, but after the prize committee made its selection. Though the Nobel Foundation's policy precludes posthumous awards, the committee ultimately decided to honor Steinman for his work. Steinman's research on dendritic cells, a class of immune cells, eventually led to the development of the prostate cancer vaccine Provenge, which works by injecting a patient's own dendritic cells back into their body, Couzin-Frankel says. "Cancer vaccines either using or targeting dendritic cells are now the subject of numerous clinical trials," she adds. "Like all cancer vaccines, it's been a challenge to get dendritic cell immunotherapy to destroy tumors in people. The goal is to selectively activate certain T cells that are best-suited to target cancer." Because dendritic cells differ from person to person, the vaccines need to be personalized and that makes them expensive. Provenge, which costs $93,000 for three doses, extends life by about three months, Couzin-Frankel says. But researchers say that despite the difficulties involved, it is a validation of Steinman's work, and dendritic cell therapy is now being applied to various cancers, including — in a recent Journal of Clinical Oncology paper published by Steinman — brain cancer. Steinman even used the therapy on himself after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Couzin-Frankel adds.

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