Nobel Prize in Medicine 2018 honours ‘landmark’ cancer therapy

US and Japanese immunologists’ protein studies recognised as major advancement in treatment of incurable cancers

October 1, 2018
Source: Getty

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been jointly awarded to two researchers for their work developing a new approach to cancer treatment.

James Allison, a professor of immunology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Tasuku Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University, shared the SKr 9 million (£775,000) award for “their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of the negative immune regulation”.

Announcing the first of this year’s Nobel prizes at a ceremony in Stockholm on 1 October, the Nobel committee called the pair’s research, which demonstrates that the human body’s own immune system can be utilised to attack tumorous cells, a “landmark in our fight against cancer”.

Ordinarily, the immune system acts to seek out and destroy mutated cells, but cancer can develop when these cells are able avoid this immune attack. Dr Allison’s work focuses on a known protein that functions as a “brake” on the immune system.

In studying the protein, Dr Allison’s research has led to a new class of drugs that work by switching off the braking mechanism, prompting the immune cells to attack the cancerous cells as normal.

The drugs are said to have significant side-effects, but have previously been shown to be effective in curing late-stage cancers found in rats. In 2010, a major clinical study showed that the drugs had significant results on human patients with advanced skin cancer, with several patients cured of remaining signs.

Professor Honjo discovered a different protein on immune cells with similar results. Clinical trials in 2012 demonstrated long-term remission and possible cure in several patients with metastatic cancer, previously considered untreatable.

Russell Vance, director of the Cancer Research Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, where Dr Allison previously worked on the project, said the department was “thrilled” to see the work recognised.

"We congratulate him on this highly deserved honour,” he said. “This award is a testament to the incredible impact that the fundamental research Jim conducted at Berkeley has had on the lives of cancer patients.”

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