STOCKHOLM – Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine at a ceremony Monday in Stockholm, for his discovery of a protein on immune cells that paved the way for a new approach to cancer treatment.
After accepting the medal and diploma from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf at the ceremony, which he attended with his wife, Shigeko, the 76-year-old Kyoto native said he hopes the immunotherapeutic treatment will become available for people around the world. The distinguished professor and deputy director-general of the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study shared the prize with James Allison, a professor at the University of Texas, who studied a known protein that works as a brake on the immune system.
“We sincerely hope this treatment will reach far and wide so that everybody on our planet can benefit from this evolutionary gift for healthy life,” Honjo said in his speech at the lavish Nobel Banquet, attended by some 1,300 people, after the award ceremony.
Honjo, who wore kimono to the ceremony, is the 27th Japan-born winner of a Nobel Prize. Yoshinori Osumi was the last such recipient of the physiology or medicine prize, in 2016.
The discovery of the protein, called PD-1, by Honjo and his team in 1992 has led to the development of Opdivo, a drug that triggers the immune system to attack cancer cells. “Jim (Allison) and I have experienced many occasions that have made us feel well-rewarded, such as meeting cancer patients who say their lives were saved by our therapies,” Honjo said in his speech.
But he added that “the development of our discovery is just beginning, as currently only 20 to 30 percent of patients respond to immunotherapy.”
“Cancer has been the No. 1 cause of death during the last half-century. The trend is getting even worse as the average lifespan increases,” Honjo said. “We encourage many more scientists to join us in our efforts to keep improving cancer immunotherapy,” he said.
Kyoto University has said Honjo intends to donate his prize money to a foundation supporting young researchers. The Japanese and American scientists shared the award of 9 million Swedish kronor ($1 million).
Before the ceremony took place at the Stockholm Concert Hall, Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi human rights activist and victim of war crimes from Iraq, were conferred this year’s Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for their work to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.
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