Allison today shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for groundbreaking work he conducted on cancer immunotherapy at the University of California, Berkeley, during his 20 years as director of the campus's Cancer Research Laboratory.
Allison "realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors", the Karolinska Institute said on Monday.
The American and Japanese researchers worked out what was stopping immune cells from attacking tumors. "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", he said. One cancer doctor said "an untold number of lives. have been saved by the science that they pioneered". Such treatment is also called "checkpoint therapy", a term that inspired the name of the Checkpoints, a musical group of cancer researchers in which Allison plays harmonica. Called PD-1, this protein, he found, functions as a T-cell brake but via a different mechanism than CTLA-4 uses.
"Targeted therapies don't cure cancer, but immunotherapy is curative, which is why many consider it the biggest advance in a generation", Allison said in a 2015 interview. Lanier says he often spent Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with Allison in the mid-1990s, and remembers Allison talking about the initial experiments that showed him CTLA-4 could fight cancer in mice.
Allison, 70, is now chair of the department of immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
"When Dana showed me the results, I was really surprised", Allison said. Allison then spent more than 15 years convincing other scientists and drug companies that his approach could work.
Normally, PD-1 proteins work like sunglasses.
The anti-PD-1 "checkpoint inhibitors" have proved even more effective than anti-CTLA-4 treatment, giving hope to patients with lung cancer, renal cancer, lymphoma, and melanoma, among others.
At news conference later Monday in Kyoto, Honjo said what makes him most delighted is when he hears from patients who have recovered from serious illnesses because of his research.
Prior to the discoveries made by this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology winners, progress into clinical development of new cancer treatments was slow.
The Nobel Prize in Physics is to be announced Tuesday, followed by chemistry.
The duo will share the Nobel prize sum of nine million Swedish kronor (about $1.01 million or 870,000 euros).