The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for the “discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”
Be it bacteria, virus or cancer cell, no foreign molecule can expect a warm welcome to our body. T-cells, a type of white blood cells, bind themselves to potentially dangerous intruders, which triggers the immune system to defend us. Additionally, some types of proteins accelerate the full immune system response, while others inhibit it. This way our immune system attacks threatening intruders but leaves our own healthy cells alone. A typical war strategy: kill enemy soldiers, protect ours.
Unfortunately, cancer manages to fool this so-called ‘checkpoint system’ by pretending to be a normal part of our body. The latest Nobel Prize laureates independently proposed special drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors”, which suppress proteins responsible for blocking our immune system. Now, the immune system gets a chance to assess cancer cells as “non-self” and destroy them. This way, the body can fight against cancer using natural mechanisms, with just a little boost from drugs based on immunotherapy.
Allison and Honjo bring hope to patients for whom none of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy would be available, for a variety of reasons. Their work inspired numerous clinical trials, with successes in lung cancer, renal cancer, lymphoma and melanoma (skin cancer).
Whilst side effects of checkpoint therapy can be as dangerous and unpleasant as of other cancer treatments, our knowledge of autoimmune reactions allows us to manage them better. Current research focuses on explaining and treating these side effects even more effectively.
“Cancer kills millions of people every year and is one of humanity’s greatest health challenges. By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumour cells, this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy”, we can read at the Nobel Prize official Twitter account. Did we find ‘the cure’ for cancer? Probably not. But Allison and Honjo’s research can definitely save hundreds of lives.