Here's how it works: The immune cells called T-cells are devastating killers, attacking anything in the body displaying molecules called antigens that identify it as foreign and potentially threatening.
The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute has chose to award the 2018 physiology or medicine prize jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation".
Cancers can often elude our normally strong immune defenses by expressing proteins called "checkpoints" that instruct immune cells to switch off. Certain proteins appear to inhibit the action of the immune system by acting as "brakes".
Honjo has said that since his college days the six C's of curiosity, courage, challenge, confidence, concentration and continuation were his driving force in research that led to the development of drugs that opened up new cancer treatments. My mother passed away from lymphoma when I was 10 years old and she'd had radiation therapy, and one of her brothers died of lung cancer and had chemotherapy.
Allison, who now works at the University of Texas, researched during his 20 years at Berkeley how the immune system fights infection, according to a statement by UC Berkeley.
Twenty-two years ago, the possibility of using immunotherapy to treat cancer was just being demonstrated in mice.
Honjo, who has been linked to Kyoto University since 1984, discovered PD-1, an immune system cell protein which also prevents tumors from being attacked.
He also is a director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, a consortium of experts-including Allison and Sharma-from the nation's leading cancer centers, including MD Anderson. "I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells to travel our bodies and work to protect us". Immune checkpoints work in a committee to vote their approval or disapproval of whether an immune cell becomes activated and attacks when it meets and recognises another cell or organism.
Honjo said he hopes to keep working on the research in an effort to save more cancer patients. "But now I am able to play golf again". "A comment like that makes me happier than any prize".
The American Cancer Society's chief medical officer says he and colleagues gave a celebratory toast to Allison at a party on Friday - days before the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Medicine - because they agreed this could be his year. 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 drug showed dramatic success in patients treated in 2012, including giving long-term remission to people with metastatic cancer.
Honjo and Allison were joint recipients of the first Tang Prize for Biopharmaceutical Science in 2014, and both previously won the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer's Richard V. Smalley, MD, Memorial Award and Lectureship, in 2015 and 2010, respectively.
"In some patients, this therapy is remarkably effective", Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, told the AP.
That ability to work against different types of cancer is unusual and shows great promise, said Karre.