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Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded for Immune System Cancer Research

01 October 2018

After Allison himself replicated the experiment, "that's when I said, OK, we've got something here".

Charles Swanton, chief clinician at the charity Cancer Research UK, said the scientists' work had revolutionised cancer and immunotherapy. Allison, a professor at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, discovered that a molecule called CTLA-4 (cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4) acts as a "brake" on the immune system; remove the brake and-in many cases-immune cells are unleashed to fight the cancer.

Allison studied a known protein and developed the concept into a new treatment approach, while Honjo discovered a new protein that also operated as a brake on immune cells.

Allison, whose mother died of lymphoma, built on that research over the next 40 years, mostly in California and in Texas, where he is now chair of immunology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.

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Dr Allison, 70, said he was "honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition".

"Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer", the assembly said in a statement.

By the 1970s Allison had developed a strong fascination for T-cells, soldiers of the immune system that help defend the body against foreign invaders.

"The temporary activation of the immune system though "checkpoint blockade" provides a window of opportunity during which the immune system is mobilized to attack and eliminate tumors", Vance said.

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Cancer immunotherapy is extremely effective for a substantial minority of patients, potentially adding years to their lives and even curing some people. The therapy was acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2011 and approved by the FDA as ipilimumab (trade name Yervoy), which is now used to treat skin cancers that have metastasized or that can not be removed surgically. Other scientists worked on using CTLA-4 as a way to treat autoimmune disorders. Perlmann said the Nobel Committee chose to highlight Allison and Honjo to reflect the basic science that created a new "pillar" of cancer therapy.

Their parallel work concerned proteins that act as brakes on the body's immune system. Some types of cancers can intentionally stimulate PD-1 on T-cells, causing the immune bodyguards to take a hike. Allison's initial findings can be credited for prompting researchers, including Allison himself, to carry out the studies that have demonstrated the potent anti-cancer effects of PD-1 antibodies.

Research by Allison's team has meanwhile led to the development of a monoclonal antibody drug, which was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2011 for the treatment of melanoma.

Born on August 7, 1948, Allison's early interest was medicine and was inspired by his father, who was an ENT specialist.

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Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded for Immune System Cancer Research