James Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan won the Nobel on Monday for identifying two different brakes on the immune system which, when turned off, allow the body´s defence system to attack cancerous cells faster and more effectively.
"The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer", the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said as it awarded the prize of nine million Swedish crowns (776,207 pounds).
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.
"Immunotherapy is now possibly the most important recent discovery for cancer therapy in general, as an alternative to chemo", he said. He realized that if he could release that "brake", the immune system would wreak havoc on tumors.
He was diagnosed in 2015 with the skin cancer melanoma, which had spread to his brain.
The treatments, often referred to as "immune checkpoint therapy", have "fundamentally changed the outcome for certain groups of patients with advanced cancer", it added.
However, Karl Peggs of the University College of London said the therapy is not for everyone.
Honjo, 76, held a news conference at Kyoto University, where he is a distinguished professor, following an announcement in Stockholm he would share the prestigious award with James Allison of the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas.
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A functioning immune system is able to distinguish friend from foe in a precarious balancing act. But his cellphone lit up with a call from his son at 5:30 a.m., when the names of the winners were released. Immunotherapy is quickly becoming one of the foremost weapons in cancer treatment, alongside radiation and chemotherapy.
An article Honjo wrote in a journal in 1992 about the discovery of the protein PD-1 was the catalyst that led to him winning the Nobel Prize.
The PD-1 protein that Honjo discovered has led to a breakthrough cancer immunotherapy, and earned him the US journal Science's "Breakthrough of the Year" prize in 2013.
"At that time, I never thought it would lead to a drug to treat cancer", Honjo said.
Nobel chemistry laureate George Smith, reached at his home in Columbia, Missouri, was quick to credit the work of others in his prize. This is obviously a proud day for me as an alumnus of UW and we should all be proud of our work supporting Physics in Canada.
"He told me, 'Thanks to you I can play golf again.' ..." Removing these proteins from the equation allows immune cells called T-cells to attack the cancer.
He cautioned that there was always a danger of major problems emerging if only applied research was conducted. This year's Nobel Prize in Literature has been postponed. "They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work", Allison said.
Allison said more scientific work is needed to learn to combine immunotherapy with conventional treatment to stifle tumor growth.
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