One of the three scientists awarded this year's Nobel Prize in medicine died just four days ago, unaware that he was about to receive the greatest accolade in science.

If he had lived, Dr Ralph Steinman, a Canadian scientist at Rockefeller University in New York, would have shared the Nobel prize with an American, Dr Bruce Beutler, and Luxembourg-born Dr Jules Hoffmann for their pioneering work into the immune system and how it defends the body against infectious diseases and cancer.

The rules state that the Nobel Prize cannot be given posthumously, although it is still possible to award the prize if the winner dies between the date of the announcement and the awards ceremony in December. The board of the Nobel Foundation met yesterday to discuss whether to rescind Steinman's award, but decided it would stand.

Ann-Marie Dumanski, of the Nobel Assembly in Stockholm, said yesterday the death of a winner just days before the announcement, and without the death being known by the assembly, has presented an unprecedented dilemma.

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"This is the first time that we have had to deal with such a situation," Dumanski said.

Steinman died at the age of 68 after a four-year battle against pancreatic cancer using a form of immunotherapy based on his own discoveries.

Alexis Steinman, his daughter, said yesterday: "We are all so touched that our father's many years of hard work are being recognised with a Nobel Prize. He devoted his life to his work and his family and he would be truly honoured."

In 1973, Steinman discovered the dendritic cell, which plays a crucial role in activating the "killer" T-cells of the immune system that attack invading microbes. This is the crucial, later stage of "adaptive immunity" that allows the body to remember an attack and so build up immunity against further attacks.

Beutler and Hoffmann, who share half the £1 million ($2 million) Nobel Prize, worked on the first step, discovering the receptor proteins that recognise invading microbes and activate the "innate immunity" that protects the body.

- Independent