Two immunologists, James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo, have jointly won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on new techniques to combat cancer.
The researchers had “established an entirely new principle” for fighting cancer by helping stimulate the body’s own defences, said the Karolinska Institute, which awards to medicine prize, the first in a week of Nobel awards.
US scientist Allison, 70, studied a protein that “functions as a brake on the immune system.” His experiments with blocking the protein, named CTLA-4, achieved positive results as early as 1994.
Japanese researcher Honjo, 76, discovered another protein on immune cells, called PD-1, that performed a similar braking function. It led to treatments that were “strikingly effective” in the fight against cancer, the prize-givers said.
After receiving the news, the professor posted a photo of himself and over a dozen members of his research team at Kyoto University smiling and giving the thumbs-up.
“When someone said to me, ‘I am well now, recovering from a serious illness thanks to you,’ I realize that my research was meaningful and feel happy more than anything … I’m a very fortunate man,” Honjo told a news conference at the university.
“I would like to continue my research a little longer so that this immunotherapy could save many more cancer patients,” he said.
Honjo was also “very glad” to share the 9-million-kronor (1-million-dollar) prize with James P Allison of the United States, said Thomas Perlmann, secretary general of the Karolinska Institute’s Nobel Assembly.
“I’m honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition,” Allison said in a statement on the website of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he is a professor.
“I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has,” he added.
Allison’s work was notable for “realizing the concept and make the first proof in mice and taking it to (human) patients,” said Anna Wedell, professor of medical genetics at Karolinska Institute and chair of the Nobel Committee.
“We definitely don’t have the full picture yet,” she cautioned.
Cancer, a disease caused by the growth of abnormal cells beyond their usual boundaries, is the second leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Lung, prostate, colorectal, stomach and liver cancer are the most common types of cancer in men, while breast, colorectal, lung, cervix and thyroid cancer are the most common among women.
Some 9.6 million people are expected to die from cancer this year, the UN body estimates.
Surgery, medicines and radiotherapy are all possible treatments for cancer, but come with serious side effects. Advanced cancer also remains immensely difficult to treat.
“By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumour cells, this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy,” the Nobel organizers said.
Professor Wedell told dpa that the work of both Allison and Honjo “were necessary for this huge clinical success.”
“It’s a huge step forward, and for some patients it’s a cure where we had none” she said.
Immunotherapies “were another tool in the toolbox to combine with all the others, but in some cases I’m sure it will replace the other therapies.”
“The concept of releasing the brake means you get a general effect, you sort of awaken this sleeping immune system,” she said.
“We need these drugs to work for more people,” Allison’s statement said.
“One challenge is that the clinical success has outrun our scientific knowledge of how these drugs work and how they might best be combined with other therapies to improve treatment and reduce unwanted side effects. We need more basic science research to do that,” he said.