2018 Medicine Nobel Prize Awarded to Two Cancer Immunologists

James Allison and Tasuku Honjo have jointly received the prestigious Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine due to their breakthrough work in cancer research.

2018 Medicine Nobel Prize Awarded to Two Cancer Immunologists
James Allison and Tasuku Honjo have been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine Nobel Prize

Two scientists who discovered how cancer can be treated by targeting the immune system have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. James Allison, from the University of Texas, and Tasuku Honjo, from Kyoto University, despite working in different labs both found that proteins act as brakes on the immune system. 

Their research led to the discovery that by releasing these ‘brakes’ a person's immune system would be strong enough to attack cancer cells. Usually, the immune system's response against cancer cells is very weak. 

Combined work has changed cancer treatment

Their discovery has led to the development of many drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors which take advantage of their work. Treatments that focus on the immune system or immunotherapy is widely acknowledged as one of the most exciting potential treatments for cancer. 

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Tasuku Honjo was born in Kyoto, Japan. He became determined to make breakthroughs in cancer treatment after a classmate died on gastric cancer in the 1960s. Honjo discovered the protein, PD-1, that acts as a brake on the immune system in 1992. After disabling the protein in mice, he observed that their immune system went into overdrive. 

He later found that some cancer cells produce a protein that interacts with this 'braking' protein. The cancer-produced protein suppresses the immune system's ability to fighting cancer tumors. Honjo did experiments where the PD-1 protein was removed from mice, these mice didn’t grow tumors. 

Determined scientists led to drug development

Despite the promising research, Honjo found it hard to convince the pharmaceutical industry to follow up on his findings and develop drugs that would be based on his research. Luckily for us, Honjo’s determination led to the creation of PD-1 inhibitors such as nivolumab and pembrolizumab. 

These drugs have been found to shrink tumors far more effectively than chemo- and radiotherapy with much milder side effects. James Allison was born in Texas and is the current professor and chair of Immunology and executive director of immunotherapy platform at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. 

Alison discovered another protein that acts as a ‘checkpoint’ against the body’s immune system called CTLA-4. Alison discovered that by blocking this protein with an antibody made immune cells become more active. 

The drug ipilimumab was the first checkpoint inhibitor approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2011. “I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has,” Allison said in a statement. 

Immunology paves way to new cancer treatments

The combined work of these two scientists has led to new ways to beat cancer. Before protein inhibitors were invented cancer treatments were restricted to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. 

Their work has opened up a less invasive way to treat cancer. Work continues in the field of immunology and many more breakthroughs are expected in this exciting scientific field.