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BLOG: Cancer researchers from US and Japan awarded Nobel Medicine Prize

Emma Löfgren
Emma Löfgren - [email protected]
BLOG: Cancer researchers from US and Japan awarded Nobel Medicine Prize
The 2018 Nobel Medicine Prize laureates. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine have been revealed in Stockholm.


  • The 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine is awarded to James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation". 

13:00 'This is really a groundbreaking discovery'

The Local's Catherine Edwards has been speaking to Jonas Bergh, an oncology professor at the Karolinska Institute and a member of the Nobel Assembly, about what made this year's awarded research stand out.

"This was very unique. A lot of immune therapy has been ongoing for decades; it was very successful in mouse models but rarely worked in humans because we didn't really understand the sophistication of the brakes, so this is really a groundbreaking discovery that there were these brakes which prevented the immune system from reacting against cancer cells," he says.

"Very rapidly there have been enormous clinical implications for cancers including those which are more difficult to treat such as lung cancer and renal cancer – you bring the effect of therapy up to a markedly different and better level. It is perhaps most pronounced for melanoma where traditional therapies have limited effect."

The Local's Europe editor Catherine Edwards interviewing Jonas Bergh of the Nobel Assembly. Photo: Nele Schröder/The Local

Asked to explain the research in simple terms: 

"Every human has an immune system and its purpose is to recognize the unknown, most obviously bacteria and viruses et cetera. But the immune system does not properly recognize cancer cells as foreign because there are brakes in the immune systems which prevent it from attacking the cancer cells. In simple terms, the immune system is paralyzed because the brakes are on. This discovery by Honjo and Allison shows that by removing the brakes, it can recognize the cancer cells as foreign and they will be destroyed."

And does he have any predictions for what the future consequences will be?

"There are numerous things. Firstly, not all patients who receive the therapy are responding so the question is how to identify those who will respond. Secondly, how best to make use of that therapy? Thirdly, can you use these therapies together with conventional therapies like chemotherapy and radiotherapy? There are promising observations in certain types of breast cancer with a lot of DNA mutations and marked genetic variability. By combining therapy there are many more patients for whom all tumours disappear."

"On a broader scale, how can we ensure access of these drugs to many patients, because these are very costly interventions. There's a lot to do so you should come back in ten years and I'm sure we would have a lot of revolutionary news on this. These two scientists made fundamental discoveries which really changed our knowledge of the immune system."

Well, that's all from us today. Thanks for following our live blog, congratulations to James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo, and join us tomorrow morning for the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

12:25 Watch the announcement

Here's what it looked like when the 2018 laureates were announced:

We're now waiting to speak with one of the experts on the Nobel Committee to find out more about Allison, Honjo and their research. 

12:05 Receiving exciting news

Tasuku Honjo, born in 1942 in Kyoto, Japan, was a research fellow in the US in the early 1970s and received his PhD in 1975 at Kyoto University. He has also been a faculty member at Tokyo University and Osaka University, and since 1984, a professor at Kyoto University.

Here's a picture of Thomas Perlmann, the secretary-general of the Nobel Committee, speaking with Honjo just minutes before announcing his name to the world.

Perlmann told journalists here in Stockholm that Honjo was very pleased. He does look quite happy:

11:58 'Thank you, thank you, wow'

James P Allison was born in 1948 in Texas, where he also received his PhD in 1973. He has worked at several prestigious institutions, including the University of Texas, the University of California (Berkeley) and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

He has been a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, since 2012 and is affiliated with the Parker Institute For Cancer Immunotherapy.

It is still very early morning in the US, so understandably the Nobel Committee has not yet managed to get in touch with Allison to let him know that he'll be going to Stockholm in December, but Swedish news agency TT has spoken to him. I could be wrong, but I think they were the ones to inform him of the happy news, and apparently his first words were "thank you, thank you, wow".

I'll have more for you about Tasuku Honjo shortly.

11:40 Explaining the science behind Nobel pair's research

The Nobel Foundation tweets that "laureate James P Allison (from Texas, USA) studied a protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realized the potential of releasing the brake and unleashing our immune cells to attack tumours. He developed this concept into a new approach for treating patients."

And Tasuko Honjo (from Kyoto, Japan) "discovered a protein on immune cells and revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer."

11:34 And the 2018 laureates are...

James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation". Congratulations!

11:20 Frenchman at centre of Nobel scandal jailed for raping woman

The Nobel Prize in Physics will be announced on Tuesday, followed by Chemistry on Wednesday and Peace (in Oslo) on Friday. The Economics Prize, which is not part of the original awards ordered by Nobel, will be announced on Monday next week.

There will not be a Nobel Literature Prize this year, after a row sparked by rape charges against Jean-Claude Arnault, a well-known figure on Stockholm's cultural scene, tore the Swedish Academy (the prestigious institution that usually hands out the prize) apart and prompted the resignation of several of its Members.

Stockholm District Court just announced the verdict in the case of Arnault. Read more here.

Today's Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, however, has nothing to do with this.

10:55 Who and why?

The medicine prize was the third prize mentioned in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish scientist and inventor who first made a vast fortune from his invention of dynamite in 1866, then decided to turn his attention to more altruistic areas of life and ordered the creation of the famous Nobel prizes.

Here's what he wrote in his will: "One part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

Nobel decreed that the bulk of his estate should be invested in "safe securities" and, as a result, about 31.5 million Swedish kronor, equivalent today to about 1.7 billion ($190 million), were used to create the Nobel Foundation. Since 1901, the year the first Nobel prizes were awarded, the foundation has funded the awards.

It almost didn't happen. Nobel died childless in San Remo, Italy, in 1896, but two nephews tried to have the will nullified, and even King Oscar II of Sweden opposed his wishes, saying they were not "patriotic minded".

10:45 Welcome to The Local's Nobel live blog

Good morning and welcome to the start of the Nobel Prize season, with this year's winner of the Medicine or Physiology, chosen by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, to be revealed later this morning.

The Local's Europe editor Catherine Edwards and our intern reporter Nele Schröder are at the Karolinska Institute just north of Stockholm to bring you all the latest from the press conference. I – Emma Löfgren, editor of The Local Sweden – am manning this live blog. Tweet us if you have any questions, or, if you are a Member of The Local, log in to comment below (don't miss our student offer with a 50 percent discount).


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