The revolution in immunotherapy has been recognized in an extraordinary way as two scientists who helped discover how to harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer have been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for medicine
The researchers, American James Allison, who works at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Japanese scientist Yasuku Honjo, have paved the way for the new class of cancer drugs that are changing the game when it comes to treating a handful of cancers. Broadly speaking, immunotherapy works by stimulating the body’s immune system to find and attack cancer cells.
“The impact of this award can not be understated,” said Mount Sinai’s Dr. Nina Bhardwaj at an immunotherapy conference in New York City. “An incredible scientist has devoted his life to something that has had tremendous impact on thousands … we will see the impact of this discovery for years to come. He’s laid the foundation for developing many, many new agents.”
Allison studied a protein that acted as a sort of brake on the immune system – eventually realizing that by releasing this mechanism, the immune system can be unleashed to attack cancer cells. Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells which also functioned as a braking mechanism, but in a different way. The work by these two scientists has led to incredible strides in the way doctors think about treating cancer.
“In the last several years, there’s been an explosion of information that enables us to help larger numbers of patients by getting their body’s immune system to fight this disease,” said Dr. Steven Rosenberg, Chief of Surgery at the National Cancer Institute.
The discoveries recognized by the Nobel Committee have led to clinical trials, and now fully-approved immunotherapy drugs. In lung cancer and melanoma, these drugs have been approved and large numbers of people are starting to benefit. However, leading researchers such as Dr. Rosenberg tell SurvivorNet that the really big question is why some patients do not respond to existing immunotherapy. Much of the next generation clinical trials are focused on the features of specific cancers and the genetic makeup of cancer mutations in order to understand why these cancers are resistant to treatment and how to create therapies which will more effectively target them.
Dr. Allison, speaking at the NYC conference, said the new frontier in cancer treatment will require a lot of trial-and-error … just as his early work on immunotherapy did. “What we ought to be doing is, if you start a trial and you’re going to do a combination [of a checkpoint inhibitor and something else], whether you get a clinical significance or not … you really need to get samples, you can learn something from what didn’t happen,” he said.
“I was really just trying to understand the immune system … it is an example of basic science turning into something that benefits people.”
Neil Canavan, a scientific advisor to Trout Group and former medical journalist who wrote a book on the promise of immunotherapy, said the Nobel Prize going to Dr. Allison is a no-brainer. Canavan’s book, “A Cure Within: Scientists Unleashing the Immune System to Cure Cancer,” kicks off with a chapter devoted to Dr. Allison’s work.
“I chose Jim [Dr. Allison] because the moment I focused my reporting on cancer immunotherapy, I encountered his fame within the very tight knit community … most people in the field would agree that if Jim had not been the champion of immunotherapy to the extent he was, the field may never have gotten off the ground.”