American, Japanese win Nobel for cancer research

A screen displays portraits of James Allison and Tasuku Honju winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine during a press conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Oct 1 2018

James P Allison of the USA and Tasuku Honjo of Japan won the 2018 Nobel Medicine Prize for research that has revolutionised the treatment of cancer, the jury said on Monday.

The prize recognizes 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. Allison's study helped him realise the potential of "releasing the brake and unleashing" the human body's immune cells to attack tumours.

"Therapies based on his [Honjo's] discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer", the Nobel committee said.

T-cells are a type of white blood cell that play a central role in the body's natural immunity to disease. Allison, initially driven only by curiosity about immune cells, had a insane thought: Maybe CTLA-4 can be exploited to fight cancer. "They are living proof of the power of basic science", he added.

Honjo, 76, meanwhile, vowed to push ahead with his work.

Allison - who received his bachelor's degree in 1969 and his doctorate in 1973 at UT Austin - shares the award with Tasuku Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University. "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.

"Until the seminal discoveries by the two laureates, progress into clinical development was modest", the release stated.

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.

Among those to have received such treatment is former USA president Jimmy Carter, who was diagnosed in 2015 with the skin cancer melanoma, which had spread to his brain.

His drug, known commercially as Yervoy, became the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma.

USA drugmakers Merck & Co and Bristol-Myers Squibb now lead the field after winning drug approvals in 2014, but Roche, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Sanofi are also fielding rivals.

The Nobel Prize is the world's most prestigious annual award for outstanding work in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and promotion of peace.

Other cancer treatments have been awarded Nobel prizes, including hormone treatment for prostate cancer in 1966, chemotherapy in 1988 and bone marrow transplants for leukemia in 1990.

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