Allison's crucial insight was to block a protein on T cells that acts as a brake on their activation, freeing the T cells to attack cancer.
Allison "realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors", the Karolinska Institute said on Monday. Honjo's research led to the clinical development of treating cancer patients by targeting that protein.
Allison and Honjo discovered two different "brake" proteins that act slightly differently.
"I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells that travel our bodies and work to protect us". The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 108 times to 214 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2017. In 1996, Allison's team showed that antibodies against CTLA-4 not only got rid of cancer, but prevented new tumors from forming in mice. The discovery led to effective treatments.
For decades researchers had been trying to figure out effective ways to use the body's own immune system against cancer.
Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an investigational new drug for the treatment of cancer.
The 70 year-old Allison worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Scripps Research from 1974-77, when the center was known as the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation.
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"I'm honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition", Allison said in a statement released by the university's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he is a professor.
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. Follow-up studies show 20 percent of those treated live for at least three years with many living for 10 years and beyond, unprecedented results, according to the cancer center. The field hums with stories of lives extended: "the woman with a grapefruit-size tumor in her lung from melanoma, alive and healthy 13 years later; the 6-year-old near death from leukemia, now in third grade and in remission; the man with metastatic kidney cancer whose disease continued fading away even after treatment stopped".
"I was doing basic science to do basic science, but you know, I had the good opportunity to see it develop into something that actually does people good", Allison has said. The academy hopes to award both the 2018 prize and the 2019 literature prize next year.
Prof Honjo wants to continue his research, "so that this immune therapy will save more cancer patients than ever".
No literature prize is being given this year.
The Nobel Prize in Physics is to be announced Tuesday, followed by chemistry.