Scientists behind cancer immunotherapies win Nobel Prize in medicine

Ebony Scott
October 1, 2018

Allison studied a known protein and developed the concept into a new treatment approach, while Honjo discovered a new protein that also operated as a brake on immune cells. Removing these proteins from the equation allows immune cells called T-cells to attack the cancer.

Around the same time, Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells, the ligand PD-1, and eventually realised that it also worked as a brake but in a different way.

"For more than 100 years, scientists attempted to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer".

At the time, most doctors and scientists believed that the immune system could not be exploited to fight cancer, because cancer cells look too much like the body's own cells, and any attack against cancer cells would risk killing normal cells and creating serious side effects. In 2013, Science magazine named cancer immunotherapy its Breakthrough of the Year, citing Allison's work as crucial to immunotherapy's rapid advancement, and The Economist honoured him with its Innovations Award in Bioscience.

"Targeted therapies don't cure cancer, but immunotherapy is curative, which is why many consider it the biggest advance in a generation", Allison said in a 2015 interview.

Lanier, who like Allison is a center director for the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, says he is thrilled that such basic research was recognized.

"It's a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who've been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade".

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Allison's work, much of it done at the University of California-Berkley, changed that by proving the immune system could identify tumor cells and act against them.

Dr. Otis W. Brawley, a close friend of Allison's, said the Nobel committee usually waits about ten years to make sure a scientific discovery "sticks as being really important".

Checkpoint therapy using PD-1 has proven more effective and positive results are being seen in several types of cancer, including lung cancer, renal cancer, lymphoma and melanoma. The Nobel prize can only be awarded to individuals, but it is important to remember that others would have been involved in the discoveries. Honjo, 76, is a distinguished professor at the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study and a professor in the department of immunology and genomic medicine at Kyoto University in Japan.

A Swedish court on Monday found Jean-Claude Arnault, 72, guilty in a case that dates back to 2011.

Awards in physics, chemistry, peace and economics will follow. The academy hopes to award both the 2018 prize and the 2019 literature prize next year.

The literature prize will not be handed out this year after the awarding body was hit by a sexual misconduct scandal.

Other reports by GizPress

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