An American and a Japanese scientist have won the 2018 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of a revolutionary approach to cancer treatment.
James Allison and Tasuku Honjo will share the 9m Swedish kronor (£775,000) prize, announced by the Nobel assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
The two scientists have been awarded the prize for their discovery that the body’s immune system can be harnessed to attack cancer cells.
The immune system normally seeks out and destroys mutated cells, but cancer cells find sophisticated ways to hide from immune attacks, allowing them to thrive and grow. Many types of cancer do this by ramping up a braking mechanism that keeps immune cells in check.
The discovery is transforming cancer treatments and has led to a new class of drugs that work by switching off the braking mechanism, prompting the immune cells to attack cancer cells. The drugs have significant side-effects, but have been shown to be effective – including, in some cases, against late-stage cancers that were previously untreatable.
The Nobel assembly’s summary said Allison, who is professor and chair of immunology at the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, “studied a known protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realised the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumours. He then developed this concept into a new approach for treating patients.
“Meanwhile Honjo, a professor of immunology at Kyoto University, discovered a different protein on immune cells that also appeared to operate as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action.”
Allison said: “I’m honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition. A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. I didn’t set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells that travel our bodies and work to protect us.”
Prof Charlie Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician and a senior scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said the discovery of checkpoint molecules on immune and cancer cells has transformed the field’s understanding of the potential of the human immune system to control or even eradicate tumours.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Allison’s former colleague, Prof Sergio Quezada of University College London, watched the announcement along with other former lab mates who will see Allison later today at a cancer conference in New York. “The work that Jim and Honjo did was so seminal that people had been waiting for a few years for it [to win a Nobel],” he said.
According to Quezada, the idea of mobilising the immune system to tackle cancer first emerged more than 100 years ago, but it was only when these two scientists found a crucial missing piece of the puzzle – how to remove the brakes that cancer places on the immune system – that the concept could be translated into a treatment.
Quezada describes his former boss as “an awesome guy, humble, a fantastic mentor… and an insane harmonica player”.
Prof Dan Davis, of the University of Manchester and author of The Beautiful Cure that describes the work that led to today’s prize, said: “I’m so thrilled that a Nobel has been awarded for this game-changing cancer therapy. It doesn’t work for everyone but lives have been saved, and 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. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg – many more medicines like this are on the horizon.”