Scientists behind cancer immunotherapies win Nobel Prize in medicine

October 1, 2018

Written by:

James Allison and Tasuko Honjo


Immunologists James Allison of the United States and Tasuko Honjo of Japan won the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for research in how the body’s natural defenses can fight the scourge of cancer.

The scientists’ work led to treatments targeting proteins made by some immune system cells that act as a “brake” on the body’s natural defenses eradicating cancer cells.


Their discovery led to a “landmark in our fight against cancer,” according to a statement from the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.


The therapy “has now revolutionized cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed,” the statement added.


Allison, 70, of the University of Texas Austin, studied a known protein and developed the concept into a new treatment approach.


In 1995, he was one of two scientists to identify the ligand CTLA-4 as an inhibitory receptor on T-cells, which are a type of white blood cell that play a vital role in the body’s natural immunity to disease.

Allison “realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors,” the Nobel jury said during Monday’s prize announcement in Stockholm.


“I’m honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition,” Allison said in a statement released by the university’s MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he is a professor.


“A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. I didn’t set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells that travel our bodies and work to protect us,” he added.


Honjo, of Kyoto University, discovered a new protein, the ligand PD-1, which also acted as a brake on immune cells.


Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an investigational new drug for the treatment of cancer.


“For more than 100 years, scientists attempted to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer. Until the seminal discoveries by the two laureates, progress into clinical development was modest,” the Nobel jury said.


Other cancer treatments have been awarded Nobel Prizes, including hormone treatment for prostate cancer in 1966, chemotherapy in 1988 and bone marrow transplants for leukemia in 1990.

“However, advanced cancer remains immensely difficult to treat, and novel therapeutic strategies are desperately needed,” the Nobel Assembly said.


The winners will receive their prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of Alfred Nobel, who created the prizes in his last will and testament.



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