By Prarthana Mitra
The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded on Monday to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their continued effort in tapping the immune system’s potential in the battle against cancer.
Why did they win?
Dr Allison, 70, hails from the US and commenced his work on proteins at the University of California at Berkeley and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Working separately, Dr Honjo, 76, was also conducting his own study in Japan at the same time, as a faculty member at Kyoto University. They were both able to demonstrate in the nineties that certain proteins can inhibit the cells’ ability to combat cancer cells, providing a major breakthrough in developing new treatments.
According to the official statement from the Academy, Allison studied a protein that functions as a “brake” on the immune system. The idea is to unleash these cells to attack tumours better, a finding he used with his patients. Honjo also discovered a protein on immune cells and concluded it impeded the body’s natural immunity. “Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer,” the statement added.
Why is their work important?
Charlie Swanton, a cancer research expert, told The Guardian, “Over the last decade, work from both these Nobel prize winners has led to the development in the clinic of a new class of therapies – so-called checkpoint inhibitor therapies – that are transforming the management of haematological and solid tumours. A decade ago, metastatic melanoma was largely incurable. Thanks to work from Allison and Honjo, patients now have real hope, with over a third of patients deriving long-term benefit and even cures from such therapies.”
Until their discovery, cancer treatment depended on surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. The award-winning fourth possible avenue, dubbed as “immune checkpoint therapy”, bases itself on inhibiting the negative immune regulation. The Nobel committee at the Karolinska Institute called harnessing the immune system in this manner “an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.” Dan Davis, an immunologist and professor at the University of Manchester told The Guardian, “[…]it has sparked a revolution in thinking about the many other ways in which the immune system can be harnessed or unleashed to fight cancer and other illnesses.”
“The discovery made by the two Medicine Laureates takes advantage of the immune system’s ability to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells,” tweeted the official Nobel Prize handle. “Cancer kills millions of people every year and is one of humanity’s greatest health challenges. By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells this year’s Nobel Laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy,” read the statement.
In other Nobel news
The award was jointly shared by Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young last year, whose work on molecular mechanisms and how they control the body’s circadian rhythm has shed enormous light on human lifestyle, rhythm and bodily cycles, thus reducing health risks.
The 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics, Chemistry and Peace will be declared subsequently this week. The coveted award for Literature has been suspended this year, due to internal problems and sexual assault allegations brought against a core member.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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