Japanese, American win Nobel medicine prize for cancer therapy

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While the idea that the immune system plays a role in controlling cancer dates back more than 100 years, the work of Allison, Honjo and other researchers who studied CTLA-4 and PD-1 over the past few decades validated the concept and turned it into an effective therapeutic approach.

The scientists' work in the 1990s has since swiftly led to new and dramatically improved therapies for cancers such as melanoma and lung cancer, which had previously been extremely hard to treat. Honjo discovered the protein on the surface of T cells in 1992 and set about trying to figure out its function.

"Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer", the prize committee said of his discovery. Research by Allison at the University of Texas in the U.S. and Honjo at Japan's Kyoto University explored how the body's immune system can be harnessed to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 108 times to 214 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2017.

In the early 1990s, Allison had been studying a protein called CTLA-4, which sits in the outer layer - the membrane - of an active T-cell and behaves like an off-switch.

Their discovery led to a "landmark in our fight against cancer", according to a statement from the Nobel Assembly of Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

After his bachelor's in microbiology and his doctorate in biological sciences from the University of Texas, Allison went to Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation near San Diego, for his postdoctoral fellowship.

"I don't know if I could have accomplished this work anywhere else than Berkeley", Allison said.

He was recruited back to MD Anderson in November 2012 to lead the Immunology Department and to establish an immunotherapy research platform for MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program.

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"It's like your body uses your own army to fight cancer", she said.

In 2016, after being treated with a drug inspired by Prof Honjo's research, he announced that he no longer needed treatment.

"When we showed (Professor Ralph) Reisfeld a paper we wrote, he actually said, 'I don't want my name on it".

"Targeted therapies don't cure cancer, but immunotherapy is curative, which is why many consider it the biggest advance in a generation", Allison said in a 2015 interview.

Dr. Otis W. Brawley, a close friend of Allison's, said the Nobel committee usually waits about ten years to make sure a scientific discovery "sticks as being really important". "Doing basic science can have major results in human health care", he says.

No literature prize is being given this year.

Medicine is the first of the Nobel Prizes awarded each year.

Monday's announcement represents only the latest instance in which a current or former Scripps Research scientist has been awarded the Nobel Prize.