February 19, 2019

Nobel-winning therapy weaponises immune system against cancer

03 October 2018, 07:16 | Dale Webster

James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo win Nobel prize for medicine

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded jointly to James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo for discovery of a cancer therapy

James Allison, from the University of Texas, and Tasuku Honjo, from Japan's Kyoto University, worked in parallel as they tried to stimulate the immune system's ability to attack tumours.

'The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer, ' the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said as it awarded the prize of nine million Swedish crowns ($1 million).

During the 1990s, in his laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, Allison was one of several scientists who discovered that the protein CTLA-4 works as a brake on a type of immune cell known as T cells. Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an investigational new drug and developed for the treatment of cancer. A year later, he announced he no longer needed treatment. "Immune checkpoint therapy" has revolutionised cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed". Just like the other cancer treatments, this also has side effects such as overactive immune response leading to autoimmune reactions, which means the body's own cells are treated as foreign bodies and the immune system fights against the cells. Since 1984 he has been professor at Kyoto University. Half of the 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize was designated for Frances Arnold of Caltech in Pasadena for work that has led to the development of new biofuels and pharmaceuticals. Subsequent research has led to agents targeting additional immune checkpoints, often PD-1 and PD-L1, to treat a range of cancers including head and neck, gastric kidney, bladder, gastric, liver, colorectal, and cervical cancers, and Hodgkin lymphoma.

"When I'm thanked by patients who recover, I truly feel the significance of our research", Honjo said during a news conference at the Japanese university, reports Grady for The New York Times.

Allsion studied a protein that functions as a brake on the immune system.

Why did this work win the Nobel prize?

The discovery has led to a new type of cancer treatment called immunotherapy. When the treatments work, the cancer goes into remission. The peace prize will be announced on Friday, and the economics prize will wrap up the Nobel season on Monday, 8 October.

"I was doing basic science to do basic science, but you know, I had the good opportunity to see it develop into something that actually does people good", Allison has said.

Honjo said he hopes to keep working on the research in an effort to save more cancer patients.

Also, more than 30 drugs are under development as of June, said the American Cancer Society. He learned that the protein could put the brakes on T cells, creating what's called an immune "checkpoint".

Among the numerous awards and honours that Honjo has received are the Order of Culture, the Robert Koch Prize and the Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy.

"The booming field of immunotherapy that these discoveries have precipitated is still relatively in its infancy, so it´s exciting to consider how this research will progress in the future", said Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK´s chief clinician. "They are living proof of the power of basic science".

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