Pioneer Cancer Therapy Earns 2018 Nobel Medicine Prize

The Nobel jury announced on Monday that immunologists Tasuku Honjo of Japan and James Allison of the U.S. received this year’s Nobel Medicine Prize for their groundbreaking research in cancer treatment. The assembly said the duo were honored “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”

The two looked into how humans can “turn on” the body’s natural defenses to attack tumors, transforming the way healthcare providers understand and manage the disease. The two Medicine Laureates will share a prize of 9 million Swedish kronor, which equates to around 1.01 million U.S. dollars.

A Landmark Strategy In The Battle Against Cancer

Honjo is a distinguished professor at the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study and the Department of Immunology and Genomic Medicine. Meanwhile, Allison is a professor and chair of Immunology at the University of Texas.

In the 1990s, Allison was one of two researchers to discover the CTLA-4 molecule as an inhibitory receptor on T-cells, a type of white blood cell that is also responsible for body’s defense system. The 70-year-old, whose mother died of cancer when he was 10 said, “I’d like to give a shout out to all the [cancer] patients out there to let them know we’re making progress here.”

Concurrently, Honjo identified a protein on immune cells, the ligand PD-1, and learned that it also worked as a brake but in a different way. He began his study after a medical school classmate died from stomach cancer.

Releasing “Brake Proteins”

Traditional forms of cancer care often come with severe side effects. By manually eliminating certain “brake proteins,” the two scientists were able to hit accelerate and command T-cells to attack cancerous growths. This helps the body to naturally protect itself and speed up recovery. Until the discoveries Honjo and Allison made, progress in clinical development was modest. The pioneer immune therapy has opened a new era in cancer treatment.

Cancer is an umbrella term for over 200 diseases, characterized by the growth of abnormal cells. It is the second leading cause of death worldwide, although thanks to advances in technology, we are seeing a drop in mortality rates and can expect life expectancy after diagnosis to improve.

Moving Forward

Honjo, 76, vowed to further develop his work. “I want to continue my research… so that this immune therapy will save more cancer patients than ever,” he told reporters at the University of Kyoto where he is based.

Allison also said on the website of his University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center that he was honored and humbled to receive the prestigious recognition. “I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has… It’s a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who’ve been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade. They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work.”

Prof Charlie Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician and a senior scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London said, “Thanks to work from Allison and Honjo, patients now have real hope, with over a third of patients deriving long-term benefit and even cures from such therapies.”

After a century of research, scientists continue to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer. With the pivotal discoveries by the two laureates, we are excited to see more promising results in the use of immunotherapy.


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