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James Allison, Tasuku Honjo win Nobel for cancer research

Published: Updated:

Researchers from the United States and Japan won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discoveries that help the body marshal its cellular troops to attack invading cancers. One cancer doctor said “an untold number of lives ... have been saved by the science that they pioneered.”

James Allison of the University of Texas and Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University will share the 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize for 2018. Their parallel work concerned proteins that act as brakes on the body’s immune system.

Their research, which has led to drugs that release the brakes on the immune system, constitutes “a landmark in our fight against cancer,” said the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, which selects the winners of the prestigious award.

The discoveries by Allison, 70, and Honjo, 76, “absolutely paved the way for a new approach to cancer treatment,” Dr. Jedd Wolchok, chief of the melanoma and immunotherapeutics service at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, told The Associated Press.

He said the idea of releasing the brakes on immune system cells has led to drugs for the skin cancer melanoma and for cancers of the lung, head and neck, bladder, kidney and liver. Just last week, such a drug was approved for treatment of another kind of skin cancer called squamous cell cancer, he said.

Wolchok said “an untold number of lives ... have been saved by the science that they pioneered.”

The approach to cancer treatment that was honored with this year’s Nobel was used to treat former US President Jimmy Carter, who was diagnosed in 2015 with melanoma, which had spread to his brain.

One of Carter’s treatments was a drug that blocked the immune-cell “brake” studied by Honjo. Carter announced in 2016 that he no longer needed treatment.

Although the concept of using the immune system against cancer arose in the 19th century, initial treatments based on the approach were only modestly effective.

“Everybody wanted to do chemotherapy and radiation. 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.

Allison’s work, much of it done at the University of California-Berkley, changed that by proving the immune system could identify tumor cells and act against them.

“It’s like your body uses your own army to fight cancer,” she said.

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.

“I’m honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition,” Allison said in a statement released by the university’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he is a professor.

At news conference later Monday in Kyoto, Honjo said what makes him most delighted is when he hears from patients who have recovered from serious illnesses because of his research.

Honjo, an avid golf player, said a member of a golf club once walked up to him suddenly, thanking him for the discovery that treated his lung cancer.

“He told me, ‘Thanks to you I can play golf again.’ ...That was a blissful moment. A comment like that makes me happier than any prize,” he said.