Seemingly spontaneous remissions from terminal cancers are known to occur on rare occasions. For over 100 years, this observation has spurred scientists to attempt to engage the immune system to fight cancer, with little success.
But on October 1, the 2018 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine was awarded to two scientists whose seminal discoveries have revolutionized the field of cancer therapy in recent years. Because of their findings, checkpoint immunotherapy has become a cornerstone of cancer treatment across multiple indications.
Dr. James Allison, now a professor at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, was cited for his idea to stimulate a T-cell attack on cancer cells by blocking the CTLA-4 receptor. His work led to the development of a CTLA-blocking antibody called ipilimumab, which is now sold by Bristol-Myers Squibb as Yervoy.
Dr. Tasuku Honjo, a faculty member at Kyoto University, was the discoverer of PD-1 on the surface of T-cells, the basis of six marketed checkpoint therapies. Today there are at least 163 PD-1/L1 inhibitors in development and hundreds of additional immuno-oncology drug candidates, many targeting CTLA-4, in studies alone and in combination.
Allison and Honjo will share the prize — roughly $1 million USD (9 million Swedish kronor) — and deliver lectures in Stockholm at the Nobel ceremony in December.