Immuno-oncology, Scientific

Cancer R&D stars Jim Allison, Tasuku Honjo awarded Nobel prize for immunotherapy discoveries

Immunotherapy pioneers James Allison and Tasuku Honjo has jointly won the 2018 Nobel prize in physiology and medicine “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”

Allison, now a professor at MD Anderson and an affiliate of the Parker Institute, came to fame for his pioneering idea to unleash a T cell attack on cancer cells by blocking the protein CTLA-4. Honjo, a longtime faculty at Kyoto University, is credited with the discovery of PD-1 on the surface of T cells — which has been the basis of most checkpoint therapies currently on the market.

While careful to note their adverse effects and shortcomings, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet applauds the two scientists for achieving landmark discoveries in the fight against cancer.

For more than 100 years scientists attempted to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer. Until the seminal discoveries by the two laureates, progress into clinical development was modest. Checkpoint therapy has now revolutionized cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed.

Allison went on to spearhead the development of an CTLA-blocking antibody called ipilimumab, which is now sold by Bristol-Myers Squibb under the brand name Yervoy to treat metastatic melanoma. He continues to be active in a new wave of biotechs searching for drugs eluded by checkpoint therapies, including Neon Therapeutics and Jounce Therapeutics.

Almost three decades after Allison and Honjo first made their discoveries in the lab, checkpoint With six PD-1/L1 agents now on the market — Regeneron and Sanofi got a quick OK for their latest contender just this past Friday — the global pipeline is brimming with at least 163 PD-1/L1 inhibitors and hundreds more immuno-oncology drug candidates, many targeting CTLA-4 in combo studies.

A high-profile figure at scientific conferences, Allison has a legion of friends and colleagues happy to cheer the news.

I’m just thrilled for him, as a friend and as a scientist,” said Fred Ramsdell, Ph.D., vice president of research at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and a colleague of James Allison’s for decades. “It’s really gratifying to see that the Nobel Committee chose to award the prize for the fundamental research that ultimately led to a paradigm shift in clinical cancer therapy that has saved so many lives.”

Allison and Honjo will share the prize — roughly $1 million (9 million Swedish kronor) — and deliver lectures in Stockholm at the Nobel ceremony this December.

Image: Jim Allison and Tasuku Honjo. MD ANDERSON, UCSD

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