James Allison, whose early work at Scripps Research in La Jolla set him on a path to using the immune system to successfully fight cancer, reached the pinnacle of science Monday when he was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
The researchers will share a prize of 9 million Swedish kronor (just over $1 million). The Swedish Academy said that the academics' discovery takes the advantage of the immune system's ability to attack the cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells.
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. Their research has led to the development of drugs that release that Human immune system against the cancer cells.
"Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer", the assembly said in a statement.
The discoveries led to the creation of a multibillion-dollar market for new cancer medicines. "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. The first anti-PD-1 drugs were pembrolizumab (Merck's Keytruda), and nivolumab (Bristol-Myers Sqibb's Opdivo), both initially approved in 2014 for the treatment of melanoma: Both block the PD-1 (programmed cell death 1) protein on the surface of the immune system T cells, with the result that those cells attack and, sometimes, eliminate the tumor. A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge.
Professor Allison works at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.
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.
Meanwhile, the fact that the literature prize will not be handed over this year has grabbed several headlines.