Immunologists James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their pioneering work in the relatively new field of cancer immunotherapy. Allison, a professor at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, discovered that a molecule called CTLA-4 (cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4) acts as a “brake” on the immune system; remove the brake and—in many cases—immune cells are unleashed to fight the cancer. Allison spent 17 years convincing others that this approach could work, leading to approval in 2011 of the drug Yervoy, which showed near-miraculous results for a fraction of patients with a lethal form of skin cancer.
Meanwhile Honjo, of Kyoto University in Japan, was studying a different immune brake called PD-1 (programmed cell death 1), according to Thomas Perlmann, secretary general of the Nobel Committee, who spoke about the findings amid the prize announcement early Monday. Allison’s success with CTLA-4 in cancer persuaded Honjo to consider his molecule in cancer as well—and he found PD-1 therapy was even safer and more effective against a number of cancers, including lung cancer, which kills about 150,000 Americans a year. Drugs based on his findings also work in combination with Yervoy against a number of types of cancer.
Allison was “elated” by the award, says his longtime friend and colleague Lewis Lanier, a professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco, who says he spoke with Allison just after the announcement. Lanier says he often spent Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with Allison in the mid-1990s, and remembers Allison talking about the initial experiments that showed him CTLA-4 could fight cancer in mice. Allison then spent more than 15 years convincing other scientists and drug companies that his approach could work. It was his perseverance, as well as his science, that brought cancer immune therapy to the public, Lanier says.
Lanier adds he has nominated Allison for the Nobel several times, but that it probably took the committee some time to figure out who deserved to receive it alongside him.
The list of other possible awardees included a number of American researchers including Arlene Sharpe and Gordon Freeman at Harvard Medical School and Dana–Farber Cancer Institute; Jedd Wolchok at Memorial Sloan Kettering; and Carl June at the University of Pennsylvania, who pioneered another approach to immunotherapy. Perlmann said the Nobel Committee chose to highlight Allison and Honjo to reflect the basic science that created a new “pillar” of cancer therapy.
Lanier, who like Allison is a center director for the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, says he is thrilled that such basic research was recognized. “Doing basic science can have major results in human health care,” he says.