Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Scientists Who Developed Breakthrough Cancer Treatment

Nobel prize laureates James P. Allison left and Tasuku Honjo are shown during the presentation in Stockholm on Oct. 1

AP Nobel prize laureates James P. Allison left and Tasuku Honjo are shown during the presentation in Stockholm on Oct. 1

Honjo and Allison will split the Nobel prize amount of 9 million in Swedish krona, or $1.01 million.

Allison, 70, is now chair of the department of immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Research by Allison at the University of Texas in the United States and Honjo at Japan's Kyoto University explored how the body's immune system can be harnessed to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells. Allison spent 17 years convincing others that this approach could work, leading to approval in 2011 of the drug Yervoy, which showed near-miraculous results for a fraction of patients with a lethal form of skin cancer.

Though cancer rates continue to decline in the U.S.

"Because this approach targets immune cells rather than specific tumors, it holds great promise to thwart diverse cancers", the Lasker Foundation wrote when it awarded Allison its 2015 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.

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Speaking to NPR in 2016, Allison said in his experiments on mice with cancer, he tinkered with one key molecule on the outside of T cells in the rodent's immune system.

Both Allison and Honjo discovered how to lift the molecular "brakes" that keep our immune cells from attacking ourselves - specifically for the cancer cells that spawn inside of us.

Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an investigational new drug for the treatment of cancer. In 1982, while working at The University of Texas System Cancer Center, Allison made a breakthrough discovery - identifying the T-cell antigen receptor, which allows T cells to recognize an unusual protein on the surface of another cell. "There were a lot of smart people to work with, and it felt like we could do nearly anything".

Meanwhile, Allison left UC Berkeley in 2004 for Memorial Sloan Kettering research center in NY to be closer to the drug companies shepherding his therapy through clinical trials, and to explore in more detail how checkpoint blockade works.

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Today, immunotherapies based on Allison and Honjo's research work especially well for fighting advanced and aggressive tumors.

"In some patients, this therapy is remarkably effective", Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, told the AP.

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. The peace prize will be announced on Friday, and the economics prize will wrap up the Nobel season on Monday, October 8.

Meanwhile, the fact that the literature prize will not be handed over this year has grabbed several headlines. No literature prize is being given this year.

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