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Research Centre for Molecular Medicine
University of Debrecen

E-mail: mmkk.office@med.unideb.hu

2006 Ralph M. Steinman, Rockefeller University, USA

Dr. Ralph Steinman was born on January 14th, 1943 in Montreal, Canada. He has received his first degree in 1963 from the McGill University in Biochemistry and an M.D. degree in 1968 from Harvard Medical School, Magna Cum Laude. He was an intern and resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In 1970 he started a postdoctoral fellowship with Drs Zanvil Cohn and James Hirsch at the Rockefeller University in New York City. After finishing his fellowship he stayed at Rockefeller and raised through the ranks of Assistant and Associate Professor to Professor. In 1987 he became co-director of the Rockefeller-Cornell MD-PhD Program. Since 1988 he is a Professor and Senior Physician in the Laboratory of Cellular Physiology and Immunology at Rockefeller University. In 1995 he became Henry G. Kunkel Professor and since 1998 he is the director of the Christopher Browne Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases.

Professor Steinman has been the recipient of numerous awards. These include the Emile von Behring Prize, the Rudolph Virchow Medal, the Max Planck Award and the Robert Koch Prize. Recently he has received the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Novartis Prize for Basic Immunology and New York City Mayor’s Award for Scientific Excellence. He holds Honorary Doctorates from the University of Innsbruck, Vrije Universiteit, Brussels, University of Nuremberg-Erlangen and he is Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He has been elected to membership of the United States National Academy of Sciences in 2001 and became a member of the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2002. Professor Steinman serves as editor for several journals including the Journal of Experimental Medicine since and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He has been chairing several conferences and has been plenary or keynote lecturer of almost all major meetings on dendritic cells and various aspects of immunology. His bibliography lists over 300 research articles and more than 50 book chapters.

In the 1950s a fundamental theory of immunology was formulated by Frank Macfarlane Burnet. He proposed the clonal selection theory stating that lymphocytes proliferate in response to antigens only if the antigen matches their receptor. But an important question remained open: how was the antigen presented to initiate the response.

During his medical training Dr Steinman felt that it was essential to understand and manipulate this initiation step to treat diseases. In order to answer some of these fundamental questions Dr Steinman joined the laboratory of Dr Zanvil Cohn a prominent macrophage biologist to study these accessory cells. During these studies using phase contrast microscopy he found a small number of extensively branched, motile and mitochondria-rich cells mixed with the macrophages. They realized that these cells were not macrophages and based on their morphology they called them dendritic cells. They published two groundbraking papers on this discovery in the Journal of Experimental Medicine in 1973 and 1974. Later they set out to identify “the function to the form” and by extensive characterization of this new cell type he was able to show that these express major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins required for antigen presentation to T cells. Using mixed leukocyte reaction a well-known technique used to mimic T cell-mediated rejection of donor tissue during transplantation Dr Steinman showed that dendritic cells could initiate the reaction 100-1000 times more potent than bulk spleen cells. Later his team was able to show that dendritic cells were equally potent at stimulating both T cell cytotoxicity and antibody response. In subsequent studies he described dendritic cell maturation - the process by which immature dendritic cells, which capture antigens in the peripheral tissues, become efficient initiators of immunity. The cell type Dr Steinman identified and characterized, the dendritic cell, proved to be the immune system’s primary antigen-presenting cell. This work resulted in the explosion of immunology and set the stage for research on the utility of dendritic cells as therapeutic tools.

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