Medicine

Scientists behind cancer immunotherapies win Nobel Prize in medicine

Scientists behind cancer immunotherapies win Nobel Prize in medicine

Jim Allison, Ph.D., a scientist at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, it was announced on October 1.

Their research, which has led to drugs that release the brakes on the immune system, constitutes "a landmark in our fight against cancer", said the Nobel Assembly of Sweden's Karolinska Institute, which selects the winners of the prestigious award.

Allison "realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors", the Nobel jury said during Monday's prize announcement in Stockholm.

They winners will receive their prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of Alfred Nobel, who created the prizes in his last will and testament.

Last year's prize went to three Americans for work in identifying genes and proteins that work in the body's biological clock, which affects functions such as sleep patterns, blood pressure and eating habits.

Prof Honjo wants to continue his research, "so that this immune therapy will save more cancer patients than ever". The first anti-PD-1 drugs were pembrolizumab (Merck's Keytruda), and nivolumab (Bristol-Myers Sqibb's Opdivo), both initially approved in 2014 for the treatment of melanoma: Both block the PD-1 (programmed cell death 1) protein on the surface of the immune system T cells, with the result that those cells attack and, sometimes, eliminate the tumor.

Unlike more traditional forms of cancer treatment that directly target cancer cells, Allison and Honjo figured out how to help the patient's own immune system tackle the cancer more quickly.

The scientists based in Houston and Kyoto will share the prize worth more than $1 million. It was a breakthrough drug that turned an invariably fatal cancer that killed patients within months into one that could be cured, albeit in only a minority (about 20 percent) of patients.

"Jim Allison's accomplishments on behalf of patients can not be overstated", says MD Anderson president Peter WT Pisters, M.D., in a statement.

Honjo, 76, meanwhile, vowed to push ahead with his work.

US drugmakers Merck & Co and Bristol-Myers Squibb now lead the field after winning drug approvals in 2014, but Roche, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Sanofi are also fielding rivals. "They are living proof of the power of basic science", he added. The victor of the Nobel Peace Prize will be named Friday.