Dr. Ralph Steinman: Pioneer of Dendritic Cell Research

Dr. Ralph M. Steinman: Nobel Laureate Who Discovered Dendritic Cells & Pioneered Basic and Translational Dendritic Cell Research   

In this article, we capture the professional journey of Dr. Ralph M. Steinman, a physician, immunologist, and cell biologist who described the existence of dendritic cells in 1973. Dr. Steinman was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of dendritic cells and contributions to dendritic cell research both basic and translational. 

Who was Dr. Ralph M. Steinman?

Dr. Ralph Steinman was a Canadian physician who specialized as an immunologist and cell biologist. His ground-breaking basic research on the identification, purification, and extraction of dendritic cells was conducted at Rockefeller University in the US. Being a physician, he later advanced his research into the development of dendritic cell therapy, which was targeted at cancers, transplant rejection, and autoimmune diseases, all of which are mediated by immune processes. 

Only a few individuals can pursue both basic and applied research on their discoveries in their professional careers. Dr. Steinman was one such stalwart in Immunology who accomplished this difficult feat. He could do so because he was a physician, whereas many scientists doing basic research are non-physicians and they have to work together with physicians for converting their basic science findings into clinical research. 

Moreover, he was able to successfully apply the dendritic cell therapy on himself later in his life as a patient with pancreatic cancer. He also has another rare feat to his name. By the time his Nobel Prize was announced in 2011, he had died only three days back and the news of his death had not been circulated widely. The Nobel Prize is only awarded to living individuals but the case of Dr. Steinman was considered as a special case and his prize was still awarded despite his death. 

Nobel Laureate Dr. Ralph Steinman
Dr. Ralph M. Steinman.
Image Credit: National Academy of Sciences, USA

Qualifications of Dr. Ralph Steinman

Dr. Ralph Steinman was born in Quebec and completed his Science degree from McGill University. He received his medical qualification (MD) from Harvard Medical School. He completed his residency in Internal Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He was strongly attracted to the science of immunology and cell biology and decided to pursue a non-clinical career in a research laboratory at Rockefeller University under the mentorship of Dr. Cohn and Hirsch, two of the greatest immunologists and cell biologists of that time. He began his career as a postdoctoral fellow and went on to become the Director of the laboratory.  

Contributions of Dr. Ralph Steinman

For four decades, Dr. Ralph Steinman steered dendritic cell research with complete devotion and perfection, which included comprehensive research right from their identification to the development of anticancer therapy based on dendritic cells. Dendritic cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy, which offers hope to patients non-responsive to the conventional cancer treatments of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy. 

Dr. Steinman's research laid the foundation for a greater understanding of the phenomenon of antigen presentation. Dendritic cells were recognized at the center of this phenomenon and recognized as the strongest modulators of adaptive immune responses and T cells. The recognition of dendritic cells contributed to our understanding of practically every immune disease, including transplant rejection, HIV, and autoimmune diseases. So, Dr. Steinman by discovering and pioneering Dendritic Cells research in effect laid the foundation of a very important basic and applied specialty in immunology. 

He had approximately 450 scientific papers to his name. He was a scientific advisor to some of the most prestigious organizations in the domain of immunology, such as the Campbell Family Institute of Breast Cancer Research, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center for Immunology Research, Baylor Institute for Immunology Research, RIKEN Center for Allergy and Immunology Research, and CHAVI Center for HIV-AIDS Vaccine Immunology.

A Commentary on the Landmark Paper by Dr. Ralph Steinman on the Discovery of the Dendritic Cells

Dr. Steinman shared his discovery of the dendritic cells through a 1973 paper in the Journal of Experimental Medicine entitled “Identification of a novel cell type in peripheral lymphoid organs of mice. I. Morphology, quantitation, tissue distribution.”

In this paper, Dr. Steinman published phase-contrast and electron microscopy images of dendritic cells, which were identified from the peripheral lymphoid organs of mice, including the spleen. Consistent with the technology available in the 1970s, the dendritic cells were distinguished from other hematopoietic cells purely on the basis of morphological criteria and staining techniques alongside the tendencies of tissue distribution. 

Based on the minute morphological dis-similarities of the dendritic cells from the reticular cells, they were proposed to be unique cells. However, considering the commonalities between the two cells, Dr. Steinman assumed them to be related to the reticular cells and believed them to be the antigen-presenting cells of the peripheral lymphoid system.

Reading this landmark paper in full can make you realize the genius of Dr. Steinman. Each line of this masterpiece discloses his love for detail and clarity of thought process. He was sharing with the world an important immunological discovery but nowhere in his writing were there any grandiose claims.

Whereas all figures were meticulously prepared, in particular, Figure 6 of this article showed beautiful time-lapse phase-contrast micrographs of a dendritic cell at 1-minute intervals to show their unique movements. The results of his experiments were so extensively and authoritatively described that there was very little remaining to be discussed in the discussion. Reading the paper made the author feel that this paper was certainly ahead of its time. The author opines that this paper is not only a scientific but also a literary masterpiece. 

Legacy of Dr. Ralph Steinman

His contributions were recognized by the scientific community with innumerable awards, including the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 2011. Other notable awards conferred to Dr. Steinman included Friedrich-Sasse Prize, Emil von Behring Prize, Robert Koch Prize, Rudolf Virchow Medal, Coley Medal, Gairdner Foundation International Award, Albert Lasker Award, Albany Medical Prize, and A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine.

In his honor, the Ralph M. Steinman Center for Cancer Vaccines was established at the Baylor Institute for Immunology Research in Texas. The Steinman Family Foundation, a charitable foundation in his name created by his family continues to support the careers of young scientists and science education. Dr. Steinman's works continue to inspire generations of immunologists to discover newer vaccines and treatments targeting several immunological processes.

References and Suggested Reading

About the author

Dr. Naval Asija is a licensed MBBS Physician from India. MBBS is the equivalent of the MD degree offered by international medical schools. He is based in Delhi, India, and works as a medical writer, editor, and consultant. He supports medical researchers as an author's editor, medical communication companies involved in medico-marketing activities, and medical technology companies in improving their products. He can be contacted via his LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/navalasija/

Journey of a non clinical doctor


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