Nobel winners’ findings could change the way cancer is treated

Nobel Medicine Prize 2018 has gone to two scientists, James Allison of the US and Tasuku Honjo of Japan, for study on how a cancer patient’s own immune system can tackle the disease more effectively and quickly without severe side-effects that traditional forms of treatment often lead to.

The immune therapy has revolutionised cancer treatment and fundamentally changed the way cancer can be managed, a statement by Nobel Assembly said in Stockholm on Monday while announcing the winners.

The two researchers focused on targeting proteins produced by immune cells that act like brakes on human body’s natural powers to kill cancer cells. These proteins sometimes speed up an immune response or slow it.

In the mid-1990s, Allison and Honjo separately identified these proteins on immune cells as CTLA-4 molecule and PD-1 respectively. They realised that immune cells could be unleashed against tumour cells by releasing and regulating the brake on proteins.

Applying brakes on proteins is necessary after a cancer threat has been prevented or brought under control in one part of the body. If the immune response is not scaled back, it may attack healthy cells and tissues elsewhere.

According to the Nobel committee, immune checkpoint therapy involving PD-1 has shown positive results in treatments against lung cancer, renal cancer, lymphoma and melanoma. A combination of PD-1 and CTLA-4 may lead to better results on patients.

Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an investigational new drug developed for the treatment of cancer.