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American and Japanese immunologists win 2018 award for their work on cancer therapy
Two scientists who discovered how to harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer have won the 2018 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine.
James Allison, of the US, and Tasuku Honjo, of Japan, will share the 9m Swedish kronor (£775,000) prize, announced by the Nobel assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
The scientists’ groundbreaking work on the immune system has paved the way for a new class of cancer drugs that are already dramatically changing outcomes for patients. It is the first time the development of a cancer therapy has been recognised with a Nobel prize.
Allison said he was in a “state of shock” about having achieved “every scientist’s dream”.
“I’d like to give a shout out to all the [cancer] patients out there to let them know we’re making progress here,” he said.
Honjo, who began his research after a medical school classmate died from stomach cancer, said: “I want to continue my research … so that this immune therapy will save more cancer patients than ever.”
The immune system normally seeks out and destroys mutated cells, but cancer finds sophisticated ways to hide from immune attacks. One way is by ramping up braking mechanisms designed to prevent immune cells from attacking normal tissue. In the 1990s, Allison discovered the first of these built-in brakes, known as checkpoints. Other teams were investigating the potential of enhancing the action of checkpoints to treat autoimmune diseases, but Allison showed that doing the reverse – switching off the brakes – could produce remarkable results in treating mice with cancer.