Nobel Prize Goes to Cancer Immunotherapy Pioneers

Alicia Farmer
October 3, 2018

The Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded Monday to two researchers from the United States and Japan for advances in discovering how the body's immune system can fight off the scourge of cancer.

The discovery made by these scientists has revolutionized treatment and improved the prognosis of multiple tumors over the past five years by harnessing the immune system's ability to attack cancer cells. His work led to the development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug.

Allison and Tashuka initially conceived that their discoveries may help treat chronic infections such as hepatitis B and C. The drugs created from their discoveries remain in trials for these conditions, but their most exciting application has come through the treatment of cancer.

In 2017, U.S. geneticists Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were awarded the medicine prize for their research on the role of genes in setting the "circadian clock" which regulates sleep and eating patterns, hormones and body temperature.

In the past decade, immunotherapies that worked to inhibit these brakes have been trialed in patients with advanced melanoma, while others are now being trialed in lung and prostate cancers.

Both laureates studied proteins that prevent the body and its main immune cells, known as T-cells, from attacking tumour cells effectively. While Allison is an American professor and chair of immunology and executive director of immunotherapy platform at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, Honjo is the deputy director-general and distinguished professor of Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study. "There are patients over a decade ago who had an incredibly poor prognosis and now, a decade out, they are living normal lives".

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Honjo and Allison will split the Nobel prize amount of 9 million in Swedish krona, or $1.01 million. Their drug showed dramatic success in patients treated in 2012, including giving long-term remission to people with metastatic cancer.

Honjo, who has worked as a professor at Kyoto University in Japan for the past 34 years, discovered a protein on immune cells and illustrated how that too can operate as a brake, though with a different action.

The prizes for physics, chemistry, and peace will also be announced this week. Two drugs based on PD-1 inhibition, nivolumab and pembrolizumab, have been approved for treating melanoma and lung cancer.

Allison has dedicated his career developing strategies for cancer immunotherapy and now works at the MD Anderson cancer center in Houston. Allison then developed a "checkpoint inhibitor", or a drug that releases that brake, and enables the patient's immune system to identify and confront tumors. He became determined to make breakthroughs in cancer treatment after a classmate died on gastric cancer in the 1960s.

Allison heard the news of his Nobel prize win while at an immunology conference in New York City, reports Ledford and Else. The prize in economics will be announced next Monday. No literature prize is being given this year.

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