Meet the MD Anderson Cancer Center researcher who just won a Nobel Prize in medicine

U.S. scientist James Allison and Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo on Monday received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the immune system's ability to fight cancer, which paved the way for researchers to develop cancer immunotherapies.

The Nobel committee at the Karolinska Institute in a release said Allison and Honjo "established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy" by showing "how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer." The committee added, "The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer."

Allison is a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Honjo is a professor at Kyoto University.

Research details

Allison and Honjo in the 1990s separately examined proteins involved in regulating the body's immune system response. Allison conducted research on the protein called CTLA-4, which he found functioned as a brake on the immune system. If the protein is inhibited, it can stimulate the release of immune cells to target and attack tumors. Allison's work led researchers to develop ipilimumab, sold under the brand-name Yervoy, which FDA approved to treat advanced melanoma in 2011.

Honjo examined a different protein called PD-1, which he found also acted as a brake on the immune system, though it used a different mechanism of action than CTLA-4. Further research on PD-1 showed blocking the protein could trigger the body's immune system and effectively target cancer. His discovery led researchers to develop the cancer treatments pembrolizumab—sold under the brand name Keytruda, which is designed to strengthen the immune system to help fight tumors—and nivolumab, which FDA approved to treat melanoma in 2014.

These discoveries, taken together, helped lead to the development of a large number of drugs known as "checkpoint inhibitors," which have been one of the most important advances in cancer therapy in the last decade, NPR's "Shots" reports. These drugs are notable because they harness the body's own immune system to fight cancer by counteracting the ability of many cancerous cells to turn off the body's natural immune defenses, allowing the system to once again harness checkpoints to help assess if cells are cancerous (Johnson/Kelland, Reuters, 10/1; Bernstein/McGinley, Washington Post, 10/1; AP/Los Angeles Times, 10/1; New York Times, 10/1; Neel, "Shots," NPR, 10/1; Sugden/Roland, Wall Street Journal, 10/1; 2018 Nobel Prize release, 10/1).

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