James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo awarded Nobel Prize for cancer therapies

1 Oct 2018

Nobel Prize medal. Image: LCV/Shutterstock

For finding a way for the body to release the brake on immunity cells to attack cancer cells, James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo win a Nobel Prize.

While there remains a lot to be done in finding proven and effective treatments for cancer, two pioneers of science have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for similar, but revolutionary, treatment methods.

The announcement made this morning (1 October) by the Swedish Academy named the researchers as American immunologist James P Allison and Japanese immunologist Tasuku Honjo “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation”.

Thanks to their contribution to the field of cancer research, both Allison and Honjo have been able to find a way for us to ‘release the brake’ on our immune systems, unleashing their cells to target cancer cells in what was an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.

Individually, Allison studied the protein known to act as this brake in the immune system and, most importantly, was able to find how to reverse it to allow immune cells to attack tumours. He was then able to take this approach and develop it into the effective treatment deemed revolutionary by those in oncology.

This drug, dubbed ipilimumab – sold as Yervoy – was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of melanoma in 2011 and is also undergoing trials for use in lung, bladder and prostate cancer.

However, the drug has also been associated with potentially fatal adverse reactions in between 10pc and 20pc of people due to T cell activation and proliferation.

The work of Honjo

Meanwhile, in parallel, Honjo was responsible for the discovery of a protein on immune cells called PD-1. After careful exploration of its function, it was eventually found that it operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action.

In animal experiments, PD-1 blockade was also shown to be a promising strategy in the fight against cancer, as demonstrated by Honjo and other groups. This paved the way for utilising PD-1 as a target in the treatment of patients.

Such a discovery led to the development of therapies in 2012 that proved to be incredibly effective in our ongoing effort to eliminate cancer.

As part of the prize, the pair will share 9m Swedish krona (€871,000). Currently, Allison is a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, while Honjo has spent the last 34 years as a professor at Kyoto University.

Here is the pair discussing their research in recent years.

Nobel Prize medal. Image: LCV/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic