On October 1st, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their pioneer work on a new cancer treatment called “immune checkpoint therapy.” For decades, both scientists have studied the potential of the immune system to fight cancer. In studying T-cells, which are key contributors to the immune response, their research has yielded the discovery of two proteins that function as “brakes” for suppressing immunoactivity in the absence of foreign threat. By inhibiting these proteins and activating others that serve as “accelerators,” the immune system can be enlisted in the fight against cancer. The two T-cell brake proteins have been identified as CTLA-4 and PD-1 and were studied in the labs of Allison and Honjo, respectively. In clinical tests, inhibition of CTLA-4 successfully cured cancer in mice and eliminated signs of lingering cancer in melanoma patients. As for PD-1, inhibition of the protein enhanced the treatment of patients with metastatic cancer by inducing remission or possibly curing the illness altogether. New clinical studies seek to empower the immune system against different cancers by targeting both CTLA-4 and PD-1 simultaneously. Regarding the drawbacks of immune checkpoint therapy, concerns include overactivation of the immune system and the possibility of autoimmune damage. Nevertheless, Allison and Honjo’s work represents a revolutionary discovery in the approach to the treatment of cancer. The two laureates will be honored in the annual Nobel Prize award ceremony on December 10th.
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