2 Immunologists Win 2018 Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine

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Originally published on October 1, 2018 10:47 am
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This year's Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (ph) will be given to two scientists whose discoveries have led to a revolution in cancer treatment.


THOMAS PERLMANN: The Nobel Assembly has today decided to award the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo.

MARTIN: These two scientists invented a new kind of cancer treatment called immune checkpoint inhibitors. With us in the studio to tell us more NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Good morning, Richard.


MARTIN: So who are these two winners?

HARRIS: Well, the prize is being shared of course by James Allison - he's a 70-year-old biologist who's now at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston - and also by Tasuku Honjo at Kyoto University in Japan. He's 76. Now, you know how some years a Nobel Prize comes as a complete surprise?

MARTIN: Right.

HARRIS: Well, not this year. These names were on just about everybody's shortlist.

MARTIN: OK, so not such a big shock. But what exactly did these two scientists do?

HARRIS: Well, I'll start with Jim Allison. And back in the 1990s, he was working at UC Berkeley, and he was studying the immune system. That's the system that keeps us healthy by attacking threats like bacteria, viruses and even cancer cells.

MARTIN: Right.

HARRIS: And he came across a part of the immune system that actually holds the system in check. Sort of think of them as the brakes on the immune system. And it occurred to him that if he could release the brakes, maybe the immune system would be more effective in attacking cancer. And that indeed turned out to be the case.

His observations led to in fact what's been called a revolution in cancer treatment. It led to a whole new class of drugs called checkpoint inhibitors. You may have heard of that one.


HARRIS: We've talked about them a fair amount on our air.

MARTIN: Right.

HARRIS: And today they're used in melanoma, lung cancer, a whole bunch of other cancers, and the list is growing and growing and growing.

MARTIN: OK, so that's Jim Allison. The other scientist who's winning this award, Tasuku Honjo - what do you know about him?

HARRIS: Yes, Honjo worked independently of Jim Allison, but he was also exploring the same biology - molecules that put the brakes on the immune system's response. And he came across another set of molecules that do the same thing. And his discovery - he discovered these molecules called PD-1 and PD-L1, which have become prime targets for these checkpoint inhibitor drugs.

One example - one of these drugs that you may have heard about is a drug called Keytruda. And that's - that goes on and attacks these things. So it was a very similar line of reasoning and sort of biology, but he found a different set of targets to attack. And in some ways, they're more effective targets.

MARTIN: Fascinating. So how did these two independent but related discoveries end up changing how we think about cancer care?

HARRIS: Well, before the scientists made their discoveries, cancer treatment was focused not entirely but more or less on killing or removing cancer cells and tumors. So that could be with chemotherapy or surgery or radiation. And all of these treatments are still used. And in many cases, they're still very effective treatments. But there are many instances in which they don't work. And these new checkpoint inhibitors have opened up this entire new realm of cancer treatment. They are a particularly effective way to get the body's own defenses to fight back more effectively. And this whole world of immunotherapy is now really the driving force behind drug development these days.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, we hear a lot about immunotherapy. How effective are these new therapies? That's what everyone really wants to know, right? Do they work?

HARRIS: Right, and that's an evolving issue. In many cases they succeed when conventional therapies have failed. And some people have had remarkable recoveries. Remember; President - former President Jimmy Carter...

MARTIN: Right.

HARRIS: ...Was a great example of that. He had a checkpoint inhibitor to treat melanoma, and his recovery was spectacular. But it's also the case that they are not the cure for most of the patients who take these drugs. Researchers are now working on combinations or combining checkpoint inhibitors with conventional chemotherapy in order to improve outcomes. It's a very exciting area of cancer research, but clearly there's a lot more to do. This is not the end of the story.

MARTIN: Right. OK. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris with those Nobel winners, thank you so much.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.