American James Allison and Japanese Tasuku Honjo won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discoveries leading to new approaches in harnessing the immune system to fight cancer, the award-giving body said on Monday.
The joint award to Allison and Honjo was given "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation", the Nobel committee said.
The award-winning discovery led to treatments targeting proteins made by some immune system cells that act as a "brake" on the body's natural defences killing cancer cells.
Unlike more traditional forms of cancer treatment that directly target cancer cells, Allison and Honjo figured out how to help the patient's own immune system tackle the cancer more quickly.
The discoveries by Allison, 70, and Honjo, 76, "absolutely paved the way for a new approach to cancer treatment", Dr. Jedd Wolchok, chief of the melanoma and immunotherapeutics service at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in NY, told The Associated Press. Honjo has separately discovered a second protein on immune cells.
However, "immune checkpoint therapy" as it is known has since revolutionised the battle against the disease, and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed. A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge.
"With another postdoc I did some side experiments on how tumors are recognized by the immune system", Allison told the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2016. By releasing that brake, Honjo's research had found a "strikingly effective" treatment against cancer. "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.
"However, advanced cancer remains immensely hard to treat, and novel therapeutic strategies are desperately needed", the Nobel Assembly said.
Monday's announcement represents only the latest instance in which a current or former Scripps Research scientist has been awarded the Nobel Prize. The economics laureate, which is not technically a Nobel but is given in honor of Alfred Nobel, the prizes' founder, will be announced next Monday.
The academy hopes to award both the 2018 prize and the 2019 literature prize next year.
The recipients include K. Barry Sharpless, who won he Nobel in chemistry in 2001 for his insights on antibodies, and Bruce Beutler, who won the prize in physiology and medicine in 2011 for his work in immunology.