Texas immunologist wins Nobel Prize for groundbreaking cancer treatment

Grant Boone
October 3, 2018

Allison and Tasuku Honjo were jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine for their work on cancer therapy, the Nobel Committee announced in Stockholm on Monday.

The two scientists will share the 9 million Swedish kronor ($1.01 million) that comes with the prize.

In 2014, Allison and Honjo received the first "Tang Prize for Biopharmaceutical Science" for their research in cancer immunotherapy, a type of treatment that allows for the immune system to fight cancer effectively.

Allison, professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in the United States, worked on a protein known as CTLA-4 and realised during his work that if this could be blocked, a brake would be released, unleashing immune cells to attack tumours. Honjo has separately discovered a second protein on immune cells.

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American and Japanese cancer researchers were presented the award for their groundbreaking discoveries in treating cancer. "It was one of those moments when we figured out that CTLA-4 was the brakes on the immune system". It's been the most successful attempt yet to rid cancer patients of life-threatening tumours and, ultimately, the disease itself. Just last week, such a drug was approved for treatment of another kind of skin cancer called squamous cell cancer, he said.

Allison's team did the first experiments at the end of 1994, and the results were "spectacular", the Nobel organization said. "The immune system was neglected because there was no strong evidence it could be effective", said Nadia Guerra, head of a cancer laboratory at Imperial College London. After pondering what career to pursue - diplomat, lawyer or doctor - Honjo entered the Faculty of Medicine at Kyoto University in 1960 and moved on to the graduate course.

A Canadian is one of three scientists who have won the Nobel Prize for their work in laser physics. "After many years of resistance, I think the cancer field has begun to accept immunotherapy now as the fourth pillar-along with radiation, surgery and chemotherapy-of cancer therapy". Though this turbocharged immune response can cause side-effects, they aren't usually too serious and the therapy has been hailed as revolutionary for cancer treatment.

"I'm honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition", Allison said in a statement. Treatment, often referred to as immune checkpoint therapy has fundamentally changed the outcome for certain groups of patients with advanced cancer. James P. Allison of MD Anderson Cancer Center at The University of Texas in this picture obtained from MD Anderson Cancer Center (R) and Kyoto University Professor Tasuku Honjo in Kyoto, in this photo taken by Kyodo. Experts previously thought that metastasis, when the cancer spreads to other organs and tissues, was untreatable, the Nobel committee's press release explains.

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