Scientists behind cancer immunotherapies win Nobel Prize in medicine

Brittany Mendoza
October 1, 2018

In a landmark paper published in Science in 1996, Allison, Leach and Krummel showed not only that antibodies against CTLA-4 released the brake and allowed the immune system to attack the tumors, but that the technique was effective enough to result in long-term disappearance of the tumors.

The scientists' work in the 1990s has since swiftly led to new and dramatically improved therapies for cancers such as melanoma and lung cancer, which had previously been extremely hard to treat.

Around the same time, Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells, the ligand PD-1, and eventually realised that it also worked as a brake but in a different way.

The winners were chosen for "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation".

Allison's and Honjo's work focused on proteins that act as brakes on the immune system - preventing the body's main immune cells, known as T-cells, from attacking tumors effectively.

A professor at the Unviersity of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was among two people Monday who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Allison then spent more than 15 years convincing other scientists and drug companies that his approach could work.

Meanwhile, Honjo, who is now a professor at Kyoto University in Japan, discovered a similar immune system-braking protein.

Allison said his research began by studying the immune system and he stumbled upon this idea as a way to treat cancer, the same disease that killed his mother.

James Allison in 1993, when he was conducting research at UC Berkeley on a promising immunotherapy now reaching fruition.

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Science magazine named cancer immunotherapy its breakthrough of 2013 because that year, "clinical trials ... cemented its potential in patients and swayed even the skeptics".

"I would like to keep on doing my research.so that this immune treatment could save more cancer patients", he said.

Allison, 70, is now chair of the department of immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Dr Allison, 70, said he was "honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition".

"I think this is just the tip of the iceberg - many more medicines like this are on the horizon", he said. That's because our immune systems typically fight off foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, and mostly ignore the cells created within our bodies - which include cancer cells.

Last year's prize went to American scientists Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young for their research identifying genes and proteins that work with the body's internal biological clock, thereby influencing functions such as sleeping patterns, blood pressure and eating habits.

The literature prize will not be given this year because of a sexual misconduct scandal at the body that decides the award.

The Nobel Prize for physics is set to be announced on Tuesday.

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