Ralph M. Steinman, 68, a professor at New York's Rockefeller University, died of pancreatic cancer Friday, unaware that he had been awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Steinman was acknowledged by the Swedish Nobel Committee for his research into the human immune system.

Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, but by virtue of a rule that says the award will stand if the recipient dies in between the time of announcement and the actual awards ceremony, Steinman will retain this last accolade.

The Canadian-born scientist uncovered a type of cell - a dendritic cell - born in the bone marrow but found all over the body that helps fight cancer.

"We are delighted the Nobel Foundation has recognized Ralph Steinman for his seminal discoveries concerning the body's immune responses. But the news is bitter; he passed a few days ago after a long battle with cancer. Our thoughts are with his family," Rockefeller University President Marc Tessir-Lavigne told the Mirror.

Steinman was self-medicating himself, with the same dendritic cell-based therapy that he was working on.

Steinman and the American-French duo of Butler and Hoffman "revolutionised understanding of the immune system and have opened up new avenues for prevention and therapy," the Nobel Prize Committee said.