Nobel Prize for Medicine Goes to Cancer Immune Therapy Pioneers

James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo win Nobel prize for medicine

Honjo, of Kyoto University, discovered a new protein, the ligand PD-1, which also acted as a brake 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.

Allison focused on a protein on the surface of T cells called CTLA-4, discovering that it inhibits the immune cells.

The winners were chosen for "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation". Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor, according to a release. "I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells [that] travel our bodies and work to protect us".

The prize for physiology or medicine is first Nobel Prize awarded each year. To take CTLA-4 as an example, Allison's work was part of a sequence of advances starting before Ron Schwartz and Marc Jenkins' work on costimulatory signals and running beyond Nils Lonberg's involvement in the development of the ipilimumab molecule. Since then, the agency has approved at least four other PD-1 inhibitors for the treatment of nine types of cancer. Allison conducted the research at the University of California-Berkeley.

Science magazine named cancer immunotherapy its breakthrough of 2013 because that year, "clinical trials ... cemented its potential in patients and swayed even the skeptics".

Professor Allison works at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. "A comment like that makes me happier than any prize", he said.

The therapy "has now revolutionized cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed", the statement added.

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.

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.

Arnault, 72, is married to a member of the Swedish Academy which selects the Nobel Literature Prize victor, and his cultural club Forum received generous funding from the Academy.

Monday's announcement represents only the latest instance in which a current or former Scripps Research scientist has been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Last year, U.S. geneticists Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were awarded the medicine prize for their research on the role of genes in setting the "circadian clock" which regulates sleep and eating patterns, hormones and body temperature.

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