Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
As most of us are aware, on October 1st, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University and James Allison of the MD Anderson Cancer Institute for their concurrent work in immunotherapy for cancer treatment. Their work is fascinating, ground-breaking, and world-changing, but is far from the first time that cancer researchers have been named Laureates. Let’s take some time today to talk about what these amazing researchers have accomplished, as well as look back as some previous Laureates in the cancer research world.
2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Please forgive me, dear friends, for going full-out nerd on this one – but it is absolutely fascinating to me. Drs. Allison and Honjo worked independently, studying two different proteins on the surface of T-cells. T-cells, if you will remember, play a vital role in our immune responses. Our bodies, however, have some built in safe-guards that keep these cells from attacking our own cells (think auto-immune diseases). A question that has plagued researchers for years is how we can get our T-cells to attack cancer, rather than introducing potentially toxic chemicals into our bodies. A big part of this was getting our body to let down its guard, so to speak, and allow the T-cells to attack cancer (which is still part of our body).
I love the description provided by Science Daily – they explained that it is like our bodies put a brake on the T-cells, and the researchers had to find a way to release that brake. In the early and mid-1990s, Dr. Allison found that T-cell protein CTLA-4, and Dr. Honjo found that T-cell protein PD-1, both act as these brakes preventing them from being able to attack cancer. Subsequent research by both groups showed the disappearance of metastatic disease in many patients when blocking these proteins. Since then, these therapies have been named “immune checkpoint therapies”, as their action takes place at the checkpoint for T-cell activation.
Now, this isn’t to say that these are perfect treatments. As I mentioned, these proteins function to keep our immune systems in check. So, when we remove those checks, the immune system can (this doesn’t mean it will) function a bit out of control and produce symptoms similar to those experienced by patients with autoimmune disease. In fact, in a 1999 article to which Dr. Honjo contributed, mice with genetically inhibited PD-1 developed lupus like symptoms including arthritis and kidney dysfunction.
Previous Nobel Prizes for Cancer Research
The cancer research community is no stranger to the Nobel Prize, having been awarded at least four other prizes.
- 2016 – Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work in mapping the process of autophagy – or how cells self-destruct. There are many reasons why cells do this, and cancer uses this natural ability to help build resistance to treatments.
- 1990 – Dr. Joseph Murray for his work in showing how bone marrow could be transplanted to cancer patients.
- 1988 – Drs. Elion and Hitchins, who had worked together since 1945 were pioneers in understanding differences in nucleic acid metabolism (think DNA) between normal cells, cancer cells, bacteria, and others. Their work led to the development of some of the first effective chemotherapeutic agents.
- 1966 – Dr. Peyton Rous and Dr. Charles Huggins shared the prize this year for their separate works: Dr. Rous for discovering that some viruses can cause tumor growth, and Dr. Huggins for his work in using hormonal therapy for the treatment of prostate cancer.
Every year, even sometimes as often as every day, researchers are finding new ways to treat the beast that we call cancer. As always, much love, abundant blessings, and many prayers to all of the cancer warriors and their families.