The most prestigious accolade awarded each year for outstanding discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine was shared in the 2018 edition by James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo, for “their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation”.
In the press release accompanying their decision, the committee noted that “for more than 100 years scientists attempted to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer. Until the seminal discoveries by the two laureates, progress into clinical development was modest. Checkpoint therapy has now revolutionized cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed.”
Dr. Allison’s work revolves around a cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA4) protein that acts as a brake on T cells. He was able to develop an antibody that could bind to CTLA4 and block its function. Everything leads to the breakthrough synthetization of the CTLA4 blocker ipilimumab, which significantly improved survival in patients with metastatic melanoma.
As an NIH Fogarty Scholar in Residence, Dr. Honjo was first to identify the programmed cell death protein (PD-1) which is the basis for a number of current immunotherapy drugs. He showed that PD-1 functioned as a T-cell brake, though by a different mechanism than CTLA4. His research made possible a whole new generation of anticancer medication, including nivolumab, one of the most effective weapons against squamous non-small cell lung cancer and renal cell carcinoma.
Together, the two scientists brought to the world “unprecedented” research activity in the immune checkpoint field, opening up a critical new path for molecular genetics.
“This new form of immunotherapy unleashes a vigorous, and often durable, immune response directed against essentially any tumor already recognized by the immune system”.