A Westport scientist awarded the Nobel prize in medicine early Monday died three days before the prestigious honor was announced, according to the website for his university.

Ralph Steinman, 68, who had lived on North Avenue, died Friday, according to a statement from The Rockefeller University in New York City.

Steinman shared the prize announced Monday by the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm with American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann.

He died from pancreatic cancer, according to the university, which added that he had been treated with immunotherapy based on his discovery of dendritic cells two decades earlier. The cells help regulate "adaptive immunity," an immune system response that purges invading microorganisms from the body, the university said.

The Nobel Committee was not aware of Steinman's death before the Monday announcement, which triggered uncertainty about whether the award could be presented posthumously since Nobel rules prohibit the honor being given to someone who has died.

Later Monday, however, the Nobel group said the award to Steinman would stand.

"According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, work produced by a person since deceased shall not be given an award. However, the statutes specify that if a person has been awarded a prize and has died before receiving it, the prize may be presented.

The award was to be presented to Steinman "in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel laureate was alive. This was true -- though not at the time of the decision -- only a day or so previously."

The awards are set to be presented Dec. 10 at a ceremony in Stockholmn.

As a cell biologist, Steinman's work focused on the human immune system. Working with the late Zanvil A. Cohn at Rockefeller, Steinman's early research sought to understand the primary white cells of the immune system, macrophages and lymphocytes, which work to spot and destroy infectious micoorganisms and tumor cells.

During their research, Steinman and Cohn discovered a previously unknown class of immune cells, which they called dendritic cells. Steinman's research subsequently showed that dendritic cells played an important role in the onset of several immune responses.