Cancer Immunotherapy wins the 2018 Nobel Prize

Sara Musetti and Manisit Das

Early October is an exciting time of the year when people all over the world turn their eyes to Stockholm to see the winners of the Nobel Prize. Yesterday, James Allison and Tasuku Honjo jointly won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for their work discovering the function and medicinal value of checkpoint inhibition in the immune system. Here at OncoBites, we wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate Dr. Allison and Dr. Honjo for their success and the honor of the Nobel Prize, and to take a moment to highlight the remarkable impact that checkpoint inhibitors have made in the field of cancer research.

Checkpoint inhibitors have brought hope to many cancer patients over the past few years, as their mechanism of action is revolutionary. As we discussed in our primer post on cancer, tumor cells are able to hijack normal, healthy cell signals that tell the immune system that they aren’t a threat. In healthy cells, this process is key to preventing autoimmune disorders. However, when tumor cells take advantage of this process, they are able to undergo immune evasion, in which tumor cells avoid being killed by the immune system, once the immune system realizes a threat is present. The most common checkpoint molecules, or at least the ones that are currently approved, are PD-1/PD-L1 and CTLA-4. By blocking these molecules using checkpoint inhibitors, immune cells are able to see the threat that tumor cells are presenting and work to eradicate the tumors. This was the revolutionary therapy that saved the life of President Jimmy Carter after his melanoma metastasized to his brain.

Linking immune regulation to cancer has led to an explosion in research in the field of cancer immunology, as scientists are searching desperately for the next groundbreaking drug. We’re looking at new types of immune cells, like dendritic cells or natural killer cells, that may be essential actors in antitumor responses; we’re looking at using cancer vaccines with checkpoint therapy to make these anticancer immune responses stronger; we’re finding ways to modify immune cells to recognize and fight tumors better; and we’ve found ways that our gut health might be impacting our ability to fight cancer. Just today, Jason Tetro has written extensively on the topic of checkpoint inhibitors, from how they work to where the current research is heading.

This Nobel Prize is a recognition of the fact that many patients’ lives have been changed by the discovery of checkpoint inhibitors, and the fact that many more lives will be saved now that we understand one more mechanism of cancer survival better than ever before. While we still have much more to uncover, Dr. Allison and Dr. Honjo have laid a foundation upon which many scientists have been able to move the field forward, using the knowledge to develop therapies that clinicians have been able to use to extend their patient’s lives, all within less than two decades.

Our previous features on checkpoint inhibitors: 


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