The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation. The discovery takes advantage of the immune system’s ability to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells.
Cancer kills millions of people every year and is one of humanity’s greatest health challenges. By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells this year’s Nobel Laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.
James P. Allison studied a known protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors. He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients.
In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer.
Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer. “The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer.” The institute said in the press release.
The scientists’ work in the 1990s has led to new and dramatically improved therapies for cancers such as melanoma and lung cancer, which had previously been extremely difficult to treat.
Allison’s and Honjo’s work focused on proteins that act as brakes on the immune system – preventing the body’s main immune cells, known as T-cells, from attacking tumours effectively.
Allison, professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, worked on a protein known as CTLA-4 and realized that if this could be blocked, a break would be released, unleashing immune cells to attack tumors.
Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University since 1984, separately discovered a second protein called PD-1 and found that it too acted as an immune system brake, but with a different mechanism.
The discoveries led to the creation of a multibillion-dollar market for new cancer medicines. In particular, drugs targeting PD-1 blockade have proved a big commercial hit, offering new options for patients with melanoma, lung and bladder cancers.
Honjo, who is now 76, told a news conference in Tokyo he was honored to get the Nobel, but that his work was not yet done.
“I would like to keep on doing my research …so that this immune treatment could save more cancer patients,” he said.
Allison also said he was “honored and humbled” by the award.
“I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has,” he said in a statement on his university’s website.
Last year’s this prize was bestowed to three Americans for work in recognizing genes and proteins that work in the body’s biological clock, which affects functions such as sleep patterns, blood pressure, and eating habits.