by Stephen Johnson
scientists made key discoveries
that led to the
of promising new
The two researchers, from the U.S. and Japan, made
key discoveries about the immune system's response
Their work showed how to block cancer cells from
crippling white blood cells.
Still in its early stages, immunotherapy is a
promising field in cancer research.
James Allison and Tasuku Honjo have won the 2018 Nobel
Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their innovative work in
developing immunotherapy treatments to fight cancer:
James P. Allison,
70, is the chair of the department of immunology at MD
Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas
Tasuku Honjo, 76,
is a professor at the Kyoto University Institute for
Advanced Study in Japan
In the 1990s, the two
scientists made separate breakthrough discoveries about the immune
system that led to the development of immunotherapy drugs. They will
share the $1 million prize.
Allison was in New York for an immunology conference when his son
called early one morning to tell him the good news.
An hour later, Allison
and his colleagues were celebrating in a hotel room over champagne.
"It still hasn't
completely dawned on me," said Allison, at a press conference.
"I was a basic scientist. To have my work really impact people
is one of the best things I could think about. It's everybody's
Honjo also spoke about
the personal satisfaction he gets from seeing his work benefit
"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, according to Japanese news reports.
"I'd like to continue
researching cancer for a while so that this immunotherapy will
help save more cancer patients than ever before."
Immunotherapy effectively removes
the 'brakes' on the body's immune system, allowing for a certain
type of white blood cell, called
T-cells, to hunt down and kill
treatment, cancer cells can deactivate T-cells by taking advantage
of a switch on the cells, called an
This shuts down the
body's immune response and allows the cancer to spread unchecked.
Immunotherapies keep cancer-fighting T-cells active by blocking the
In the 1990s, Allison and
Honjo made key discoveries about immune checkpoints that later led
to the development of immunotherapies that have proven successful in
The development and
testing of immunotherapy drugs is still in early stages.
has shown promising signs in recent years in combating several types
of cancer, particularly lung cancer, even reversing the disease
completely in some patients.
Photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND
Many scientists have helped develop the field of immunotherapy, but
the work of Allison and Honjo helped build a foundation from which
it could grow.
"I think they really
deserve it," Jerome Galon, an immunologist at the Paris-based
national biomedical research agency INSERM, told Nature.
"You can always
multiply and have many other people, but these are the obvious
two first choices."
immunotherapy out from decades of skepticism" and has led to
treatments that have improved an "untold number of people's
health," Dr. Jedd Wolchok, a cancer specialist at Memorial Sloan
Kettering Cancer Center in New York, told The New York Times.
The Nobel committee wrote
that scientists have been searching for ways to bolster the immune
system against cancer for more than a century, but the progress was
"modest" until the revolutionary work of Allison and Honjo.
Honjo's discoveries have added a new pillar in cancer therapy.
It represents a
completely new principle, because unlike previous strategies, it
is not based on targeting the cancer cells, but rather the
brakes - the checkpoints - of the host immune system," Klas
Kärre, a member of the Nobel Committee and an immunologist at
the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said in a statement.
discoveries by the two laureates constitutes a paradigmatic
shift and a landmark in the fight against cancer."