James P Allison of USA, who jointly won the Nobel Medicine Prize with Tasaku Honjo of Japan for their discovery of cancer therapy by "inhibition of negative immune regulation", was intrigued by the immune system right from the time when he was an undergraduate and chose to dedicate his life's work to understand how it worked.
Swedish immunologist and member of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine Klas Kaerre gives an explanations on the field of research of the winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, during a press conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 1, 2018.
Allison, who is a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, was studying a protein called CTLA-4 that inhibits a person's immune system by putting the brakes on the actions of T cells.
Separately, Prof Honjo discovered a new protein on immune cells, finding that that too acts as a brake. This led him to wonder whether the immune system could provide a means to combat cancer and strengthened his belief that it could provide a much more effective and less toxic form of therapy than radiation and chemotherapy, the devastating effects of which he had witnessed in both his mother and uncle. "They are living proof of the power of basic science". Allison developed this idea into a new type of cancer treatment.
Allison's drug, known commercially as Yervoy, became the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma.
"While most researchers investigating cancer immunology were advocating vaccines to turn "on" T cells to drive antitumor immune responses, Dr. Allison was proposing the opposite-to block the "off" signal, according to the ASCO Post, a newspaper that covers cancer research".
Perlmann said he had not yet managed to contact Allison. Other scientists worked on using CTLA-4 as a way to treat autoimmune disorders. Just last week, such a drug was approved for treatment of another kind of skin cancer called squamous cell cancer, he said.
Meanwhile, Allison left UC Berkeley in 2004 for Memorial Sloan Kettering research center in NY to be closer to the drug companies shepherding his therapy through clinical trials, and to explore in more detail how checkpoint blockade works. Allison, initially driven only by curiosity about immune cells, had a insane thought: Maybe CTLA-4 can be exploited to fight cancer. "We need more basic science research to do that".
"In some patients, this therapy is remarkably effective", Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, told the AP.
Two scientists have been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for "landmark" research into how the body's natural defences can fight cancer.
As is typical for Nobel prizes, the focus on individuals overlooks the important roles played by other people.
Medicine is the first of the Nobel Prizes to be handed out each year.
The two scientists will share the 9 million Swedish kronor ($1.01 million) that comes with the prize.