Researchers James Allison and Tasuku Honjo have won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how to use the body’s immune system in the fight against cancer. The researchers will share a prize of 9 million Swedish kronor (just over $1 million).
“This year’s #NobelPrize constitutes a landmark in our fight against cancer. 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,” the Nobel committee said on Twitter.
The American and Japanese researchers worked out what was stopping immune cells from attacking tumors. Certain proteins appear to inhibit the action of the immune system by acting as "brakes". Removing these proteins from the equation allows immune cells called T-cells to attack the cancer.
Allison and Honjo discovered two different “brake” proteins that act slightly differently. Their work has been crucial to developing new and extremely effective treatments. The impact of the work done by these two immunologists is evident. They established a new way to fight the disease. The combination of both approaches has been very successful in trials and many more are underway to understand exactly how powerful these therapies are.
“Until the discoveries made by the 2018 Medicine Laureates, progress into clinical development was modest. 'Immune checkpoint therapy' has revolutionised cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed,” the Nobel committee stated.
Cancer is an umbrella term for a large group of diseases that can affect any area of the body and in some cases migrate from one organ to another. It is characterized by the growth of abnormal cells that spread very fast and beyond where they should be. It is the second leading cause of death worldwide and it is estimated that this year, 9.6 million people will die from cancer. The World Health Organisation reckons that between 30 and 50 percent of all cancers are preventable.
Professor Allison works at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. Professor Honjo works at Kyoto University in Japan. The Nobel prize can only be awarded to individuals, but it is important to remember that others would have been involved in the discoveries. Collaboration is key to science, after all.