Claudia Steinman saw her husband’s BlackBerry blinking in the dark. It had gone untouched for several days, in a bowl beside his keys, the last thing on anybody’s mind. But about an hour before sunrise, she got up to get a glass of water and, while padding toward the kitchen, found an e-mail time-stamped early that morning — “Sent: Monday, Oct. 3, 2011, 5:23 a.m. Subject: Nobel Prize. Message: Dear Dr. Steinman, I have good news for you. The Nobel Assembly has today decided to award you the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2011.” Before she finished reading, Claudia was hollering at her daughter to wake up. “Dad got the Nobel!” she cried. Alexis, still half-asleep, told her she was crazy. Her father had been dead for three days.
The Nobel Foundation doesn’t allow posthumous awards, so when news of Ralph Steinman’s death reached Stockholm a few hours later, a minor intrigue ensued over whether the committee would have to rescind the prize. It would not, in fact; but while newspapers stressed the medal mishap (“Nobel jury left red-faced by death of laureate”), they spent less time on the strange story behind the gaffe. That Steinman’s eligibility was even in question, that he’d been dead for just three days instead of, say, three years, was itself a minor miracle.
In the spring of 2007, Steinman, a 64-year-old senior physician and research immunologist at Rockefeller University in New York, had come home from a ski trip with a bad case of diarrhea, and a few days later he showed up for work with yellow eyes and yellow skin — symptoms of a cancerous mass the size of a kiwi that was growing on the head of his pancreas. Soon he learned that the disease had made its way into nearby lymph nodes. Among patients with his condition, 80 percent are dead within the first year; another 90 percent die the year after that. When he told his children about the tumor over Skype, he said, “Don’t Google it.”
But for a man who had spent his life in the laboratory, who brought copies of The New England Journal of Medicine on hiking trips to Vermont and always made sure that family vacations overlapped with scientific symposia, there was only one way to react to such an awful diagnosis — as a scientist. The outlook for pancreatic cancer is so poor, and the established treatments so useless, that any patient who has the disease might as well shoot the moon with new, untested therapies. For Steinman, the prognosis offered the opportunity to run one last experiment.
In the long struggle that was to come, Steinman would try anything and everything that might extend his life, but he placed his greatest hope in a field he helped create, one based on discoveries for which he would earn his Nobel Prize. He hoped to reprogram his immune cells to defeat his cancer — to concoct a set of treatments from his body’s own ingredients, which could take over from his chemotherapy and form a customized, dynamic treatment for his disease. These would be as far from off-the-shelf as medicines can get: vaccines designed for the tumor in his gut, made from the products of his plasma, that could only ever work for him.
Steinman would be the only patient in this makeshift trial, but the personalized approach for which he would serve as both visionary and guinea pig has implications for the rest of us. It is known as cancer immunotherapy, and its offshoots have just now begun to make their way into the clinic, and treatments have been approved for tumors of the skin and of the prostate. For his last experiment, conducted with no control group, Steinman would try to make his life into a useful anecdote — a test of how the treatments he assembled might be put to work. “Once he got diagnosed with cancer, he really started talking about changing the paradigm of cancer treatment,” his daughter Alexis says. “That’s all he knew how to do. He knew how to be a scientist.”
On Monday, Dec. 2, 2013 at the WPXI-TV Studios, The Woiner Foundation awarded a total of $30,000 to three different groups to support melanoma and pancreatic cancer research and patient care programs.
The foundation awarded $15,000 to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute’s Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program. The award was accepted by Dr. John Kirkwood, the program’s director. The money will directly support the program’s melanoma research initiatives.
The foundation awarded $10,000 to the Alliance of Families Fighting Pancreatic Cancer. The award was accepted by Marla Wagner, Director of Media for the AFFPC. The money will be used to support Dr. A. James Moser’s pancreatic cancer research programs.
The foundation awarded $5,000 to the Pittsburgh Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. The award was accepted by Affiliate Coordinator Andrea Bauer-Kuczma. The money will be used to support PANCAN’s Patient and Liaison Services (PALS) program. PALS is a comprehensive and free information service for pancreatic cancer patients, their families and healthcare professionals.
The Woiner Foundation raised the money through its first ever fundraising event, the 3-2-1 Ride, which was attended by more than 400 area cyclists on Oct. 13, 2013 on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. WPXI-TV is the official media partner of the 3-2-1 Ride.
“We are delighted to present these funds to three organizations which are working tirelessly in the fight against melanoma and pancreatic cancer,” said Rita Woiner, pancreatic cancer survivor and CFO of the Woiner Foundation.
“We look forward to growing our organization, hosting more events, and awarding bigger and bigger checks in the coming years,” said Ric Fera, melanoma survivor and CIO of the Woiner Foundation.
The Woiner Foundation is a Pittsburgh-based 501(c)(3), volunteer-run, non-profit organization founded in 2013. The organization’s mission is to fight melanoma and pancreatic cancer by increasing awareness, supporting patients, survivors and families and funding important research.
Pancreatic cancer is the 4th leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the United States. It is estimated that in 2013, 45,220 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and 38,460 will die from the disease.
Melanoma is one of the fastest growing cancers in the U.S. and worldwide, and it’s the most common form of cancer for young adults aged 25-29. Every eight minutes someone in the U.S. will be diagnosed with melanoma but when caught early, it’s almost 100% curable.