STOCKHOLM: Two researchers from the United States and Japan won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discoveries that help the body marshal its cellular troops to attack invading cancers. One cancer doctor said “an untold number of lives … have been saved by the science that they pioneered.”
The 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize will be shared by James Allison of the University of Texas and Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University.
Their parallel work concerned proteins that act as brakes on the body’s immune system. Their research led to drugs that release the brakes and constitute “a landmark in our fight against cancer,” said the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, which selects winners of the annual prestigious award.
The discoveries by Allison, 70, and Honjo, 76, “absolutely paved the way for a new approach to cancer treatment,” Dr. Jedd Wolchok, chief of the melanoma and immunotherapeutics service at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, told The Associated Press.
He said the idea of blocking the brakes on immune system cells has led to drugs for the skin cancer melanoma, and cancers of the lung, head and neck, bladder, kidney, and liver. Just last week, such a drug was approved for treatment of another kind of skin cancer called squamous cell cancer, he said.
Wolchok said “an untold number of lives … have been saved by the science that they pioneered.”
The approach to cancer treatment that was honored with this year’s Nobel was used for treating former US President Jimmy Carter, who was diagnosed in 2015 with melanoma, which had spread to his brain.
One of Carter’s treatments was a drug that blocked the immune-cell “brake” studied by Honjo. Carter announced in 2016 that he no longer needed treatment.
Although the concept of using the immune system against cancer arose in the 19th century, initial treatments based on the approach were only modestly effective.
“Everybody wanted to do chemotherapy and radiation. The immune system was neglected because there was no strong evidence it could be effective,” said Nadia Guerra, head of a cancer laboratory at Imperial College London.
Allison’s work, much of it done at the University of California-Berkley, changed that by proving the immune system could identify tumor cells and act against them.
“It’s like your body uses your own army to fight cancer,” she said.