The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded Monday [Oct. 1, 2018] to cancer researchers James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo, whose studies led to the development of drugs that unleash the human immune system against the deadly disease.
The American and Japanese researchers discovered methods of removing the brakes on the immune system to fight cancer, paving the way for groundbreaking treatments called immunotherapy. The drugs have joined surgery, radiation and chemotherapy as a major weapon in the battle against cancer.
Allison figured out how to block a protein, called CTLA-4, that holds back the immune system. He developed an antibody to inhibit the protein — research that eventually led to the 2011 Food and Drug Administration approval of ipilimumab, also known as Yervoy, for advanced melanoma. It was the first of a drug class called checkpoint inhibitors that free the immune system to attack malignant tumors.
Checkpoint inhibitors have proved successful for some patients with deadly and advanced melanoma, bladder and lung cancers, sparking a revolution in oncology and a billion-dollar market for the drugs.
The approach has been less successful against other cancers, such as prostate and pancreatic cancers, and can cause serious side effects for some people.
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