2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Nobel Prize

This is the first post after nearly seven years hiatus.  The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet announced  the 2018’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 1st.  This year’s award was given to Drs. Tasuku Honjo and James Allison for their proof-of-concept and bench-side to bed-side application of discovery on using immune system to combat cancers.   One can read the press release that was written in a very easy-to-understand fashion for general public.

Dr. Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University identified a T-cell surface protein, PD-1.  Many cancer cells express PD-L1 to bind to PD-1 so T-cell will be inactivated.  What if blocking PD-L1 by other molecule, like antibody, is able to free up T-cell, those free T-cells can attack cancer cells.  Lo and behold, Genentech’s Tecentriq (atezolizumab), a monoclonal antibody to block PD-L1, has been approved by FDA in 2016 in the treatment of urothelial carcinoma.

Dr. James Allison of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center identified a different T-cell surface protein, CTLA-4.  With similar strategy, a monoclonal antibody YERVOY® (ipilimumab) has been developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb.  This drug was approved by FDA in March 2011 to treat patients with newly diagnosed or previously-treated unresectable or metastatic melanoma.

I’ve long heard about immunotherapy that is to utilize immune system to fight cancers and potential other diseases.  The combination of  immunology with oncology application has become a very popular field that opens up strong job demands for scientists who have relevant background.  This field is not only a hot topic in academia but also a battle ground for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, big or small.