Nobel Prize underlines value of basic research

The awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine to Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo — for discovery of a protein that contributed to the development of an immunotherapeutic drug against cancer — once again confirms the importance of steady efforts on basic research, which has often been put on the back burner in recent years as greater emphasis was placed on research projects that produce quick and more practical results. Honjo says he would be honored if the feat could serve as an encouragement to those involved in basic research. His great achievement should pave the way for more investments in fundamental research and, as he put it, beefing up “systematic and long-term” support for young researchers in this country.

Honjo, a 76-year-old distinguished professor and deputy director-general of the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study, won the prize along with University of Texas professor James Allison for their discovery of proteins responsible for suppressing the immune response against cancer cells, which led to research on cancer treatment that controls the protein’s ability to suppress immunity.

Following the discovery of the protein in 1992, Honjo presented his research in 2002 that a drug that prevents the unification of cancer cells and the PD-1 protein is effective against cancer in animals. His research was then tested in a clinical trial before Opdivo was finally approved in Japan in 2014 — and later in the United States and Europe. The works of Honjo and Allison led to a fourth class of cancer treatment — alongside surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — that harnesses the immune system.

What is noteworthy is that Honjo, when his research team first discovered the PD-1 protein, was not seeking to develop an anti-cancer treatment. His team reportedly identified the protein that puts the brakes on immune response by chance when they were engaged in basic research in life science. It is amazing that such a discovery, as the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute said after announcing the prize in Stockholm, led to a therapy that “has now revolutionized cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed.”

According to the World Health Organization, cancer causes the second-largest number of death around the world after cardiovascular disease, and 1 out of 6 people die of cancer. The Karolinka Institute said the therapy based on Honjo’s discovery has been proved extremely effective in the fight against a disease that kill millions of people every year. As the Nobel jury noted, scientists attempted for more than 100 years to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer, but progress into clinical development was modest until the discoveries by Honjo and Allison. Today, the drug marketed 22 years after Honjo’s discovery is saving and sustaining the lives of large numbers of cancer patients. Honjo himself says he realizes that his research was really meaningful when people tell him they because of him they could recover from their serious illnesses.

Honjo is the fifth Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in medicine, and the number of Japanese winners of Nobel prizes in the natural science fields since 2000, including those who hold U.S. citizenship, has reached 18 — the second-largest after the United States. However, this statistic is not deemed to reflect the current status of science research activity in Japan. Most of those Nobel prizes were awarded for achievements made during the 1970s and 1980s. In more recent years, the number of academic papers produced by Japan’s science research community has been declining — China now produces more — and it’s feared that the greater emphasis that is being placed on research that produce quick and practical results is taking away resources away from basic research.

A day after the news of the award, Honjo noted that he “was able to prove that it is not rare for fundamental research to lead to applications” and that “life science is an investment for the future.” He said he hopes that Japan will provide “systematic and long-term support” for young researchers so that they can “feel happy about devoting their lives” to scientific research. If there were ¥100 million, the money should distributed to 10 researchers to explore 10 different possibilities — and in particular to give more chances to young researchers, Honjo says.

The latest Nobel Prize awarded to a Japanese scientist should serve as a catalyst for reviewing and improving the nation’s policy and environment for scientific research.