The 2018 #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation".
The duo will share the Nobel prize sum of 9 million Swedish kronor (about $1.01 million). Certain proteins appear to inhibit the action of the immune system by acting as "brakes".
By releasing the brake via an antibody that binds to and thus disables CTLA-4, he discovered in the 1990s, it was possible to unleash immune cells to swarm and kill tumors.
The scientists' work in the 1990s has since swiftly led to new and dramatically improved therapies for cancers such as melanoma and lung cancer, which had previously been extremely hard to treat. Honjo has separately discovered a second protein on immune cells.
"I would like to keep on doing my research.so that this immune treatment could save more cancer patients", he said.
Allison, whose mother died of lymphoma, built on that research over the next 40 years, mostly in California and in Texas, where he is now chair of immunology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Allison's work, much of it done at the University of California-Berkley, changed that by proving the immune system could identify tumor cells and act against them. For many scientists, he said, a driving motivation "is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. The immune system was neglected because there was no strong evidence it could be effective", said Nadia Guerra, head of a cancer laboratory at Imperial College London.
"I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells that travel our bodies and work to protect us".
"Until the discoveries made by the 2018 Medicine Laureates, progress into clinical development was modest".
"In some patients, this therapy is remarkably effective", Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, told the AP.
Berg said that former President Jimmy Carter's cancer, which had spread to his brain, was treated with one of the drugs developed from Honjo's work.
"However, advanced cancer remains immensely hard to treat, and novel therapeutic strategies are desperately needed", the Nobel Assembly said.
The physics prize is to be announced Tuesday, followed by chemistry.
The announcement in Helsinki was the first of several prizes to be given out this week.