US, Japanese pair win Nobel Medicine Prize for cancer therapy

Phillip Cunningham
October 1, 2018

The two scientists have been awarded the prize for their discovery that the body's immune system can be harnessed to attack cancer cells. Their work has been crucial to developing new and extremely effective treatments.

"In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action".

By releasing the brake via an antibody that binds to and thus disables CTLA-4, he discovered in the 1990s, it was possible to unleash immune cells to swarm and kill tumors.

"It's a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who've been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade", he added. "They are living proof of the power of basic science".

Honjo, who is now 76, told a news conference in Tokyo he was honoured to get the Nobel, but that his work was not yet done.

Dr. Otis W. Brawley, a close friend of Allison's, said the Nobel committee usually waits about ten years to make sure a scientific discovery "sticks as being really important". This led him to wonder whether the immune system could provide a means to combat cancer and strengthened his belief that it could provide a much more effective and less toxic form of therapy than radiation and chemotherapy, the devastating effects of which he had witnessed in both his mother and uncle.

Therapy developed from Honjo's work led to long-term remission in patients with metastatic cancer that had been considered essentially untreatable, the Nobel Assembly said. It is known commercially as Yervoy.


Allison, a professor at the University of Texas, and Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University, in 2014 won the Tang Prize, touted as Asia's version of the Nobels, for their research. On the other hand, Hunjo is a professor at the department of immunology and genomic medicine at Kyoto University.

The duo will share the Nobel prize sum of nine million Swedish kronor (about $1.01 million or 870,000 euros).

"However, advanced cancer remains immensely hard to treat, and novel therapeutic strategies are desperately needed", the Nobel Assembly said. A Swedish court on Monday found a man at the centre of the scandal guilty of rape and sentenced him to two years in jail.

In other Nobel Prize announcements, the physics prize will be announced Tuesday, followed by chemistry on Wednesday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

Arnault, 72, is married to a member of the Swedish Academy which selects the Nobel Literature Prize victor, and his cultural club Forum received generous funding from the Academy.

No Nobel Literature Prize is being given this year because the Swedish Academy, the body that choses the literature victor, has been in turmoil after sex abuse and financial scandal allegations.

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