The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded on Monday to James P. Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan for their work on unleashing the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells, a breakthrough that has led to a entirely new class-of drugs and brought lasting remissions to many patients who has run out of options.

James P. Allison studied a known protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors. He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients.

Steve Gschmeissner/Science Source
T-cells and breast cancer cell. Composite conceptual coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of T-cells and a breast cancer cell (pink). CAR T-cell therapy involves producing large quantities of specialised T-cells on an individual basis for each patient. T-cells are extracted from a patient’s blood sample and reprogrammed to recognise a specific target protein on the patient’s tumour cells. To achieve this, the T-cells are infected with a harmless virus, which inserts a gene into the T-cell’s DNA that causes the T-cell to produce a receptor on its surface that recognises a specific tumour protein. Large quantities of the reprogrammed T-cells are grown in the lab before being injected back into the patient where they seek out the target protein on breast cancer cells and attack them.

In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer.

Together, Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer. The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer.

The announcement was made by Professor Thomas Perlmann, Secretary of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, on 1 October 2018.