Explained: The cancer therapy that got two immunologists a Nobel

Honjo Allison honored for cancer breakthrough

The prize recognises Allison's basic science discoveries on the biology of T cells, the adaptive immune system's soldiers, and his invention of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer.

Honjo and Allison will share their prize of 9 million kronor ($1.1 million) at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10.

The Guardian reports that the scientists' discoveries have "paved the way for a new class of cancer drugs that are already dramatically changing outcomes for patients".

The seminal discoveries represent a "paradigmatic shift in the fight against cancer", the Nobel committee said, since they do so not by targeting the tumor cells but by tweaking the immune system.

Their significant body of work elucidated proteins of the immune system that can block the body from defending itself against cancer - leading to breakthrough treatments that could use the body's own defenses to attack cancer cells known as "checkpoint inhibitors".

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Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an investigational new drug and developed for the treatment of cancer.

In a statement to reporters after learning of his award, Allison said he was "honored and humbled". In a statement, the university's president, Gregory L. Fenves, called Allison's work "heroic", adding that "he richly deserves the Nobel Prize". He and James Allison of the University of Texas were jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine.

In his lab based at the University of California, Berkeley at the time, Allison's work focused on a checkpoint protein called CTLA-4, a press release from the Nobel committee explains.

"Targeted therapies don't cure cancer, but immunotherapy is curative, which is why many consider it the biggest advance in a generation", Allison said in a 2015 interview. One cancer doctor said "an untold number of lives. have been saved by the science that they pioneered".

He has spent a large part of his career studying devising strategies to fight cancer by studying the regulation of T cell responses in the human body. By releasing that brake, Honjo's research had found a "strikingly effective" treatment against cancer.

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Honjo, a Japanese immunologist, discovered a protein on immune cells that also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action.

Along with surgery, anticancer drugs and radiation therapy, immunotherapy is drawing attention as another treatment for cancer.

The literature prize will not be handed out this year after the awarding body was hit by a sexual misconduct scandal.

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.

Honjo, who began his research after a medical school classmate died from stomach cancer, said: "I want to continue my research so that this immune therapy will save more cancer patients than ever".

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After the announcement of the winners, the supporters and well wishers started to celebrate the victory.

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