This October, celebrated immunologists James P. Allison (United States) and Tasuku Honjo (Japan) were jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine for groundbreaking immunotherapy research. Honjo and Allison share the prize for parallel work on immune checkpoint therapy, which has revolutionized oncological treatment. This year is the first time the Nobel Prize for medicine has honored the development of new cancer treatments, and the two scientists will receive their award from King Carl XVI Gustaf in a Stockholm ceremony on December 10.
Allison, working out of his University of California, Berkeley lab in the early 1990s, researched the T-cell molecule known as CTLA-4, which inhibits immune response. He developed an antibody that could block CTLA-4 and free the immune system to attack cancer cells. Around the same time at Kyoto University, Honjo discovered another T-cell protein, PD-1, which also works as a T-cell brake and similarly can be blocked to unleash the immune system on cancer . Clinical research has shown remarkable results of immune checkpoint therapy, including cases where treatment led to long-term remission and cure of several “untreatable” cancer patients with lung cancer, renal cancer, melanoma, or lymphoma.
In 2014 Allison and Honjo won the Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science for their immunotherapy cancer research, an honor awarded by Taiwan’s Academia Sinica and called “Asia’s version of the Nobels.” Together, the two scientists have reignited interest in the field of tumor immunology, which fell out of favor in the 1970s. Today, a series of immunotherapy drugs are in development based on the duo’s research by pharmaceutical companies in the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, and the United States.
It is not the first time US and Japanese scientists have shared the Nobel Prize in medicine—in 2015, William Campbell (United States), Satoshi Ōmura (Japan), and Youyou Tu (China) received the Nobel Prize for their joint research on combating parasitic disease. On a state level, the United States and Japan have long collaborated to promote bilateral medical research and technology development. Since 1965, the two countries have coordinated biomedical research through the US-Japan Cooperative Medical Science Program, which was founded under President Lyndon B. Johnson and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato to focus on health crises in Southeast Asia. Last year, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Japan Agency for Medical Research in Development (AMED) also conducted their first joint review of international medical research. NIH/AMED awarded funding for thirteen biomedical projects connecting US, Japanese, and Southeast Asian researchers to confront global health challenges.
Elyse Mark is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington.