STOCKHOLM – Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo was awarded on Monday this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, for his discovery of a protein that contributed to the development of an immunotherapeutic drug against cancer.
Honjo, a 76-year-old professor at Kyoto University, won the prize with U.S. national James Allison, the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute said. Honjo opened a pathway for a new cancer treatment by discovering the PD-1 protein, which is responsible for suppressing immune response.
“I’m very honored and pleased to receive the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine,” Honjo told a news conference following the announcement.
His method of treating cancer — by controlling the protein’s function to suppress immunity — led to the development of Nivolumab, a drug marketed as Opdivo and used against lung cancer and melanoma.
Following the discovery of the protein in 1992, Honjo presented his research in 2002 showing that a drug that prevents the unification of cancer cells and that the PD-1 protein is effective against cancer in animals.
In 2006, his research was tested in a clinical trial before Opdivo was finally approved in Japan, in July 2014, and subsequently in the United States and Europe. Their work led to a fourth class of treatment — alongside surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — that harnesses the immune system.
“I’d like to continue the study a bit more so that this immunotherapy can further assist cancer patients in the future,” Honjo said at the news conference. “I hope this treatment will develop further, as researchers around the world are making efforts for such a purpose,” he added.
The Nobel Assembly said after announcing the prize in Stockholm that the therapy “has now revolutionized cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed”.
“Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer,” the assembly also said in a statement on awarding the prize of 9 million Swedish crowns ($1 million).
The Nobel jury noted that “for more than 100 years, scientists attempted to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer”.
“Until the seminal discoveries by the two laureates, progress into clinical development was modest.”
A native of Kyoto, Honjo spent much of his youth in the city of Ube in Yamaguchi Prefecture. As a child, he enjoyed the outdoors, and deepened his interest in becoming a scientist by observing Saturn and reading the biography of renowned Japanese bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928).
Allison, a professor at the University of Texas, and Honjo won the Tang Prize, touted as Asia’s version of the Nobels, in 2014 for their research. In 2016, Honjo also won the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences.
In his message upon receiving the Kyoto Prize in 2016, Honjo said, “Doing research isn’t simply about studying hard. Reading papers and memorizing them doesn’t make you a good researcher.”
“Follow your curiosity,” he advised, “and have the courage to meet the challenge. That’s where science starts, in my opinion.”
The pair will receive their Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.
In recent years, three Japanese nationals had won the Nobel Prize in medicine, including Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won in 2016, and Satoshi Omura, who won a year earlier. In 2012, Kyoto University’s Shinya Yamanaka also won the prize. Including two who later became naturalized U.S. citizens, Japanese nationals have now won a total of 26 Nobel Prizes across all categories.
Last year, U.S. geneticists Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were awarded the prize in medicine for their research on the role of genes in setting the “circadian clock,” which regulates sleep and eating patterns, hormones and body temperature.
The winners of this year’s physics prize will be announced on Tuesday, followed by the chemistry prize on Wednesday. The peace prize will be announced on Friday, and the economics prize will wrap up the Nobel season on Oct. 8.
For the first time since 1949, the Swedish Academy has postponed the announcement of the 2018 Nobel Literature Prize until next year, amid a #MeToo scandal and bitter internal dispute that has prevented it from functioning properly.