As you might have heard, Profs. James Allison (USA) and Tasuku Honjo (Japan) jointly took this year’s Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of PD-1 (Honjo) and CTLA-4 (Allison) mediated negative immune regulation.
But what does this mean, how does it work and what makes it so ground-breaking?
Immune regulation and cancer
In the fight against disease, tight control of our body’s natural defences is just as fundamental as the immune response itself. Any foreign or damaged cells (including tumour cells) should be destroyed while healthy cells should not be attacked. Key to this control are T cells, a type of white blood cell, that recognise bacteria and viruses as “non-self”, using receptor proteins on their surface. ‘Brakes’, known as checkpoints, on the surface of T cells halt activation of the immune response when it’s not needed. The basis of Allison and Honjo’s Nobel-winning work rests upon the concept of harnessing the immune system to attack tumour cells by inhibiting two specific checkpoints – called CTLA-4 and PD-1 – using antibodies (checkpoint inhibitors) specific to those proteins to switch on our immune response. This releases the inhibition on T cells so they can target tumour cells and has be shown to be highly efficient and, for PD-1 targets in particular, led to long-term remission of metastatic cancer in some human clinical trials. This work has been been the most successful attempt yet to rid cancer patients of life-threatening tumours and, ultimately, the disease itself.
Based on this research has come the approval of the CTLA-4 antibody inhibitor ipilimumab and PD-1 inhibitors pembrolizumab and nivolumab as therapies for treating melanoma in combination with cancer vaccines. Three other antibodies have been developed that target a third protein, PD-L1. The success of these immune checkpoint therapies in reducing tumour size and spread has been unprecedented: both animal and human trials showed dramatic results for all the drugs tested. As these therapies are based on enhancing the body’s own immune response the side-effects aren’t usually as serious as traditional treatments such as chemotherapies and have been hailed as revolutionary for cancer treatment. Approval of these three drugs for other types of cancer, including lung and prostate, are expected in the coming years.
The Nobel Prize
This is just one of five international Nobel Prize awards that are bestowed in several categories on a yearly basis. The other categories include chemistry, literature, peace and physics, as well as an informal Nobel Prize in economics. The Nobel Prize has come to be regarded as the most prestigious award that can be bestowed upon any persons or organisation.
In previous years, the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine has been awarded to those that revolutionised our understanding of how the body fights infection and devised IVF fertility treatment, to name just two recent examples.
The prestigious awards were established upon the death of Swedish scientist, Alfred Nobel, in 1895. His last will and testament declared that the majority of his fortune be used to create the five Nobel Prizes in recognition of pioneering advances that are of the “greatest benefit on mankind”. Alfred Nobel himself was a chemist, engineer and inventor, most famously known for inventing dynamite, among an incredible 355 inventions throughout his lifetime.
A Breakthrough in Cancer Treatment
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. The ongoing work to improve the outcomes for cancer treatments and improve the quality of life for those patients undergoing treatment demonstrated by these scientists is mirrored by the mission of Arquer Diagnostics.
We develop and deliver rapid minimally invasive oncology diagnostics products as it has been repeatedly shown that the best chance we have at beating cancer is to diagnose it as early as possible. Take control of your health, keep an eye out for symptoms and never ignore any that might arise.
The future for cancer patients looks hopeful indeed. For more on the latest developments in cancer research, please check our website.