The Department of Immunobiology offers our heartfelt congratulations to Drs. Jim Allison and Tasuku Honjo for being awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This award highlights the power of basic research, patience, and persistence.
Both scientists made their breakthrough findings by working to understand the basic principles that drive T cell function. Or, as Allison said at a news conference in New York, “I didn’t get into this to cure cancer. I wanted to know how T cells work.” In Allison’s case, having discovered the T cell receptor responsible for antigen recognition and then showing that a molecule called CD28 provides an important second signal, he turned his attention to a molecule called CTLA-4, for which the function was unclear. Upon learning that CTLA-4 functions to put the brakes on T cell responses, he told NPR that he thought, “Let’s just disable the brakes and see if that will allow the immune system to attack cancer.” Subsequent experiments in mice showed this line of reasoning to be correct. Or, as Allison put it, “I’ve been doing this sort of stuff for years, and I’d never seen anything like that. And I thought, ‘If we could do that in people, this is going to be amazing’”. In 2011, nearly two decades after his fundamental basic research discoveries, and after considerable persistence in working to translate his finding from the bench to the bedside, an anti-CTLA4 molecule called Yervoy was approved by the FDA. This marked the first in an entirely new class of drugs, called checkpoint inhibitors, that has transformed immunotherapy. Honjo’s discovery of a molecule called PD-1, which he then found to serve as a different braking mechanism on T cells, has also been targeted for immunotherapy with drugs (i.e. Keytruda and Opdivo) approved in 2014.
Importantly, both scientists are excited that these successes highlight how fundamental discoveries from basic research provide the essential pipeline for transformational therapies. As noted by Honjo, the hope is that this Nobel “…will give encouragement to many researchers in basic studies.” Indeed, we stand inspired by these wonderful achievements.
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