KYOTO – Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tasuku Honjo voiced hope on Tuesday that Japan would invest more in science, a day after he was chosen for this year’s award in physiology or medicine along with American James Allison for their studies on cancer therapy.
“I was able to prove that it is not rare for fundamental research to lead to applications,” Honjo, 76, said at a news conference held at Kyoto University, where he is currently a professor. “Science is an investment for the future.”
News that Honjo became the 26th Japanese Nobel Prize winner was met with a shower of praise from cancer patient groups and the Japanese government on Monday.
“Cancer patients are being saved by (the new cancer medicine) Opdivo, which originated from a study carried out by the Japanese researcher. We are delighted that it was positively evaluated,” said Shinsuke Amano, head of the Japan Federation of Cancer Patient Groups.
When new medicine is developed abroad, it usually takes time to gain approval from authorities for its use in Japan. But Opdivo became available not long after its development and has proven to be effective, according to Amano. However, he expressed hope that further progress is seen in related studies due to the high costs required for the treatment, which are said to top over ¥10 million per person annually.
In his youth, Honjo was not necessarily clear on what path he should take. After pondering what career to pursue — diplomat, lawyer or doctor — Honjo entered the Faculty of Medicine at Kyoto University in 1960 and moved on to the graduate course. During his university days, a fellow student died of stomach cancer, which led him to think that he would someday like to get involved in tackling the disease.
After studying for a few years in the United States, where he was exposed to the latest research on genes and immunology, he decided to return to Japan and continue his research there, partly because he wanted to give his children a Japanese education.
In 1992, when Honjo was a professor at his alma mater’s faculty of medicine, one of the members at his laboratory discovered the protein PD-1, which opened a pathway for a new cancer treatment that came to be known as immunotherapy. But at the time, the substance was just a byproduct of an experiment and no one knew what kind of function it had, according to Yasumasa Ishida, an associate professor at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, who found the protein.
The study was later joined by Nagahiro Minato, an expert on antibodies, who is now executive vice president of Kyoto University, and researchers found ways to enhance the human immune system to attack tumor cells through animal testing and other experiments.
The process of making the drug was not easy. “Everyone thought it was a lie that cancer could be treated by immunity,” Minato said. But the researchers worked hard to pitch their findings to drugmakers. In 2006, their research was tested in clinical trials and the new medicine, Opdivo, was approved in Japan in July 2014 and subsequently in the United States and Europe.
Honjo was “not interested in earning fame,” Minato recalled. “He probably thought it was his obligation to make medicine that is helpful.”
At the news conference Tuesday, Honjo described his life as “blessed.”
“It has been so fulfilling that I wish I could live this life all over again,” he said, while thanking his family for allowing him to focus on his research.
Also attending the news conference was his 75-year-old wife, Shigeko, who said, “I have taken upon myself the job of supporting my husband, so I am very happy that he received the Nobel Prize.”
Shigeko, who studied math and science at university, said the Nobel Prize made her think she can now settle down after years of supporting her family while Honjo went from job to job, forcing their children to change schools.