Researchers James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo were awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for their groundbreaking work on maneuvering the immune system to revolutionize cancer treatment.
Allison, who was elected an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow in 2006 and has been a AAAS member since 1992, began his research on unleashing the immune system to fight cancer in the 1990s at the University of California, Berkeley. He is now a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Honjo, a professor at Japan’s Kyoto University since 1984, was separately engaged in extensive research on the function of a protein in activating the immune system to attack cancer tumor cells.
The two scientists pursued different strategies in search of ways to ease the brakes on the immune system and boost its capacity to fight cancer including those most elusive to treatment – melanoma and lung cancer. The Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said, “The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer.”
Allison’s research on a protein, known as the CTLA-4 T cell, focused on finding ways to disconnect the brake on the T cell to engage the immune system’s power to fight cancer cells, the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute noted. His ongoing efforts to transform his strategy into a novel therapy for cancer patients led to clinical studies in 2010 that proved to be highly effective in fighting advanced melanoma skin cancer.
On the other side of the world, Honjo had been long at work on an earlier discovery of another protein, PD-1, which could be used to manipulate the T-cell brake through a mechanism distinct from the one Allison was pursuing. Clinical trials soon revealed the PD-1 mechanism effective in treating cancer patients. “Results were dramatic, leading to long-term remission and possible cure in several patients with metastatic cancer, a condition that had previously been considered essentially untreatable,” said the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.
The prize, which carries an award of $1 million, has opened the door to clinical development of what is known as immune checkpoint therapy and that approach has “fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed,” the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute added.
Science magazine’s “2013 Science Breakthrough of the Year” referenced the work of Allison and Honjo. The edition’s focus on advances in immunotherapy cited a pivotal 1996 research paper by Allison that was published by Science. It also pointed to a breakthrough by Honjo, citing the 1990 discovery of a molecule that also served as a brake on T cells, said Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, which are published by AAAS.
“Cancer immunotherapy is a clear example of translating basic understanding of immunology into a new approach to cancer treatment that has had dramatic effects on some patients, with much more in progress,” said Berg.
Nobel prize winners in physics will be announced on Oct. 2, and in chemistry on Oct. 3.
The Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said that by merging different strategies to release the brakes on the immune system, the two Laureates had “fundamentally changed” cancer treatment.
“A large number of checkpoint therapy trials are currently underway against most types of cancer, and new checkpoint proteins are being tested as targets,” the institute said.
[Associated image: Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Media AB 2018]