This year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to James Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their groundbreaking work in the fight against cancer. Their innovative approaches are founded on immunological checkpoint therapy.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Monday 1 October that the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine would be jointly awarded to the US scientist James P. Allison and his Japanese counterpart Tasuku Honjo for their work in immunotherapy. Awarded the Tang Prize – the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize – in 2014, the two scientists have done much to develop cancer treatment, as reported by Le Monde.
An artificial antibody
“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. Cancer weakens the body’s immune system, which protects against illness and infection.
While cytotoxic T lymphocytes, the activation mechanism of which is affected by a tumour environment, are capable of identifying a malignant tumour, cancer prevents them from migrating towards it to attack it. The inhibition of these white blood cells is mainly due to a protein by the name of CTLA-4. It is with the aim of countering this that Allison, a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in the United States, developed Ipilimumab, a monoclonal antibody that specifically targets CTLA-4.
A highly versatile treatment
Trials conducted on anti-CTLA-4 antibodies in melanoma patients since 2004 have shown that they restore the ability of cytotoxic T lymphocytes to attack tumour cells, significantly extending survival rates, with some patients with metastatic cancer going into long-term remission.
The trials represented the first attempt to apply immunological checkpoint therapy in cancer patients. An approach that is not strictly specific to the treatment of melanoma, it has since been applied successfully to other forms of tumours.
Restoring the immune function of T lymphocytes
Allison’s fellow Nobel Prize winner Honjo has carried out research on the inhibitive capability of an another protein, PD-L1, which is present in tumour cells and which, in latching on to a protein called PD-1, halts the ability of the T cell to fight tumours. “PD” stands for “programmed death”.
Honjo’s research has shown that the use of anti-PD-1 and anti-PD-L1 molecules prevents T lymphocytes from becoming inactive and enables them to regain their immune function. His treatment has been shown to be highly effective in the fight against cancer.
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