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James P Allison of the US and Tasuku Honjo of Japan were today (Monday, October 1) awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovery of a type of cancer treatment that harnesses a person’s own immune system, revolutionising the treatment of cancer .

“By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells this year’s Nobel Laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy,” the Nobel Prize Foundation said in a statement.

Nobel for medicine to researchers for cancer treatment breakthrough“Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer,” the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said in a statement on Monday, jointly awarding the prize of 9 million Swedish crowns (€870,000, $1 million) to the two scientists.

Medicine is the first of the Nobel Prizes awarded each year. The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were created in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel, and have been awarded since 1901.

The literature prize will not be handed out this year after the awarding body was hit by a sexual misconduct scandal.

The two medicine laureates studied proteins that prevent the body and its main immune cells, known as T-cells, from attacking tumour cells effectively.

Allison, who is a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, was studying a protein called CTLA-4 that inhibits a person’s immune system by putting the brakes on the actions of T cells. He realized that if he could release that “brake”, the immune system would wreak havoc on tumours. Allison developed this idea into a new type of cancer treatment.

Meanwhile, Honjo, who is now a professor at Kyoto University in Japan, discovered a similar immune system-braking protein. Called PD-1, this protein, he found, functions as a T-cell brake but via a different mechanism than CTLA-4 uses. Honjo’s research led to the clinical development of treating cancer patients by targeting that protein.

Whereas both proteins have proven to be effective targets for treating different types of cancer, PD-1 has shown stronger results for the so-called immune checkpoint therapy, according to the Nobel Prize Foundation. Targeting PD-1 has shown positive results in treating lung cancer, renal cancer, lymphoma and melanoma. And more recently, scientists have found that combining the two targets can be even more effective in cancer treatment, particularly in combating melanoma.

Honjo and Allison will split the Nobel prize amount of 9 million in Swedish krona, or $1.01 million.

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