This year’s Nobel Prize winners for Physiology or Medicine used animal models to develop their novel cancer therapy.
James P. Allison, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, USA, and Tasuku Honjo, of Kyoto University, Japan, discovered in mice a way of unleashing immune cells to attack tumours by turning off the safeguards in the immune system that prevent it from attacking human tissue.
In turn, new drugs can now be developed offering hope to patients with advanced and previously untreatable cancer. Immune checkpoint therapy is already used to treat people with the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma.
Cancer kills millions of people each year and is one of humanity’s greatest health challenges. By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumour cells this year’s Nobel Laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.
Professor Allison studied a known protein that functions as a ‘brake’ on the immune system, which normally protects the human body but can be taken advantage of by opportunist cancers. Allison realised the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumours. This concept was developed into an original and inventive approach for treating patients.
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.
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.
Accepting the prize, Prof. Honjo said: ‘I want to continue my research…so that this immune therapy will save more cancer patients than ever.’