The 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded jointly to James P. Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”
Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer. The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer.
James P. Allison studied a known protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors. He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients, a statement said.
In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer.
During the 1990s, in his laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, James P. Allison studied the T-cell protein CTLA-4. He was one of several scientists who had made the observation that CTLA-4 functions as a brake on T cells. Other research teams exploited the mechanism as a target in the treatment of autoimmune disease. Allison, however, had an entirely different idea. He had already developed an antibody that could bind to CTLA-4 and block its function (see Figure). He now set out to investigate if CTLA-4 blockade could disengage the T-cell brake and unleash the immune system to attack cancer cells. Allison and co-workers performed a first experiment at the end of 1994, and in their excitement it was immediately repeated over the Christmas break. The results were spectacular. Mice with cancer had been cured by treatment with the antibodies that inhibit the brake and unlock antitumor T-cell activity. Despite little interest from the pharmaceutical industry, Allison continued his intense efforts to develop the strategy into a therapy for humans. Promising results soon emerged from several groups, and in 2010 an important clinical study showed striking effects in patients with advanced melanoma, a type of skin cancer. In several patients signs of remaining cancer disappeared. Such remarkable results had never been seen before in this patient group.
In 1992, a few years before Allison’s discovery, Tasuku Honjo discovered PD-1, another protein expressed on the surface of T-cells. Determined to unravel its role, he meticulously explored its function in a series of elegant experiments performed over many years in his laboratory at Kyoto University. The results showed that PD-1, similar to CTLA-4, functions as a T-cell brake, but operates by a different mechanism (see Figure). In animal experiments, PD-1 blockade was also shown to be a promising strategy in the fight against cancer, as demonstrated by Honjo and other groups. This paved the way for utilizing PD-1 as a target in the treatment of patients. Clinical development ensued, and in 2012 a key study demonstrated clear efficacy in the treatment of patients with different types of cancer. Results were dramatic, leading to long-term remission and possible cure in several patients with metastatic cancer, a condition that had previously been considered essentially untreatable.