Nobel prize for medicine won by cancer researchers – as it happened

Last modified: 11: 08 AM GMT+0

Two immunologists, American James P Allison and Japanese Tasuku Honjo, win annual award for work on a new approach to cancer treatment

And that's a wrap

So there we have it. The 2018 medicine Nobel prize has gone to Tasuku Honjo at the University of Kyoto and James Allison at Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Their work on inhibiting the immune system to combat cancer is already considered transformative, but will doubtless prolong many more lives as therapies based on the breakthroughs are developed further. Tomorrow it’s time for the Nobel prize in physics. We’ll have live coverage of the announcement - due no earlier than 10.45am UK - from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Do join us if you can!

Prof Dan Davis, an immunologist at the University of Manchester and author of The Beautiful Cure, which describes the work that led to today’s prize, told my colleague Hannah Devlin:

I’m so thrilled that a Nobel has been awarded for this game-changing cancer therapy. It doesn’t work for everyone but lives have been saved, and it has sparked a revolution in thinking about the many other ways in which the immune system can be harnessed or unleashed to fight cancer and other illnesses. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg – many more medicines like this are on the horizon.


And here’s more reaction. Hannah has just spoken to UCL’s Prof Sergio Quezada, a former colleague of James Allison’s. Quezada says his team and other former lab mates were up early this morning to watch the Nobel announcement. Along with Allison, they are attending a cancer immunology conference in New York today. Quezada says:

The work that Jim and Honjo did was so seminal that people had been waiting for a few years for it [to win a Nobel].

Quezada says the idea of mobilising the immune system to tackle cancer had been around for more than 100 years, but it was only when these two scientists found a crucial missing piece of the puzzle – how to remove the brakes that cancer places on the immune system – that the concept could be transformed into a treatment.

On a personal note, he describes Allison as an “awesome guy, humble, not got a big ego, a fantastic mentor ... and an insane harmonica player”.


Hannah has been talking to cancer experts about today’s medicine prize.

Prof Charlie Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician and a senior scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, told her that the discoveries of checkpoint molecules on immune and cancer cells have transformed the field’s understanding of the potential of the human immune system to control or even eradicate tumours. He adds:

Over the last decade, work from both these Nobel prize winners has led to the development in the clinic of a new class of therapies – so-called checkpoint inhibitor therapies – that are transforming the management of haematological and solid tumours. A decade ago, metastatic melanoma was largely incurable. Thanks to work from Allison and Honjo, patients now have real hope, with over a third of patients deriving long-term benefit and even cures from such therapies.


My colleague Hannah Devlin has a news story here on the medicine award today.

And here’s a super-high-level summary from the Nobel assembly on the work of Honjo and Allison:

James Allison studied a known protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realised the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumours. He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients.

In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually 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.

Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer. The seminal discoveries by the two laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer.


Allison plays a wicked harmonica. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. What’s not to love?

The CheckPoints, the house band of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC), performs “Sweet Home Chicago” at the 32nd Annual Meeting (SITC 2017) in National Harbor, Md.

Matthew Cobb, a professor of zoology and historian of science at Manchester, has given me this prod:

@iansample You might want to tell readers of the Nobel blog they can learn all about the winners’ work in The Beautiful Cure by @dandavis101

— Matthew Cobb (@matthewcobb) October 1, 2018

You can read our review of the book below. The science is certainly beautiful. I don’t know how many people it’s cured though.

It’ll be interesting to hear who, if anyone, may have been overlooked for the 2018 medicine prize. Back in 2016, Thomson Reuters (now Clarivate analytics) came up with the following “citation laureates”: predicted contenders for the Nobel based on how often work is cited.

For explaining how CD28 and CTLA-4 are regulators of T cell activation, modulating immune response, they list:

James Allison at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston; Jeffrey Bluestone at UCSF in San Francisco; Craig Thompson at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

But then they pull out these three for work on programmed cell death-1 (PD-1) and its pathway, which has advanced cancer immunotherapy:

Gordon Freeman at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston; Tasuku Honjo at Kyoto University in Kyoto; and Arlene H Sharpe at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The Nobel committee have put Allison and Honjo together for the one prize today. As we know, these awards never do justice to the broader scientific effort that underpins the breakthroughs they honour.


“Let the data speak for itself” and other Allison lab tenets

Jim Allison’s friends & colleagues recently organized a 70th birthday symposium for him at @MDAndersonNews. A slide from that on “Allison Lab Tenets” featuring @WillieNelson (of course).
And Jim with one of his many new toys. #NobelPrize #Immunotherapy

— Anirban Maitra (@Aiims1742) October 1, 2018


It turns out that the Nobel committee has not yet managed to get hold of James Allison. But I’m guessing word has got through by now...

How lovely is this?

Just in! Nobel Laureate Tasuku Honjo, surrounded by his team at Kyoto University, immediately after hearing the news that he had been awarded the 2018 #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine.

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 1, 2018

And here is Tasuku Honjo talking about his research at the 2016 Kyoto prize in basic sciences:

Interview with Dr Tasuku Honjo, the 2016 Kyoto prize laureate in basic sciences.


Here’s James Allison talking about his work, which unleashes the power of the immune system on cancer:

James Allison at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas talks about his work to combat cancer


A flurry of tweets from the Nobel Foundation describe the basics of the winners’ work. Here goes:

This year’s #NobelPrize constitutes a landmark in our fight against cancer. The discovery made by the two Medicine Laureates takes advantage of the immune system’s ability to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells.

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 1, 2018

2018 #NobelPrize laureate James P. Allison studied a protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realised 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.

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 1, 2018

Tasuku Honjo, awarded the 2018 #NobelPrize, 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.

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 1, 2018

When I wrote, at the beginning of this blog, that I’d put my money on Allison, I sort of wish I really had put money on Allison.

And the winners are!

The 2018 #NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 1, 2018

Here we go. The committee has arrived.

Which I must say is infinitely more preferable to the music they used to play.

Silence has well and truly fallen at the Karolinska Institute.

The room is filling up for the announcement. It’s nearly time to see how far off we are with our predictions this year...

The winners-to-be do not get any advance notice that they have bagged the prize. Here’s one recipient getting the call earlier today:

Someone is receiving exciting news from Thomas Perlmann, the Secretary-General of the Nobel Committee.

Find out who! Watch the announcement live stream at 11:30am (CEST).

Photo: Yanan Li#NobelPrize

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 1, 2018

Predictions for 2018

How often do we get the Nobel prize right? Twice in history, I’d suggest. And those were easy ones: the physics prize in 2013 for what has become known as the Higgs boson; and another physics prize, awarded last year, for the detection of gravitational waves. Why easy? Well, in both cases the key discovery came in the year before, and would have elicited a torrent of nominations in the run-up to the following year’s Nobel deadline in January. With the Higgs boson, it was Cern’s announcement of the discovery of the particle in July 2012 that made Peter Higgs and Francois Englert a shoo-in. In the case of gravitational waves, it was the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) team’s detection of a quiver in spacetime in February 2016.

But back to medicine. Who’s in the running this year? I’ll take a punt on James Allison at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He won the 2015 Lasker award – a good indicator of future Nobel fame – for demonstrating how the immune system can be unleashed on cancer.

There are plenty more candidates though. How about William Kaelin (Harvard), Peter Ratcliffe (Oxford and the Francis Crick Institute) and Gregg Semenza (Johns Hopkins) for discovering how cells sense and adapt to changes in oxygen, a process essential for life? Or Stephen Elledge (Harvard) and Evelyn Witkin (Rutgers) for discovering how DNA protects itself from damage?

The committee might plump for Crispr, a gene-editing procedure. Personally I think it’s too early: the tool has immense promise but has hardly transformed many people’s lives. And it may be more suited to the chemistry prize these days. There’s also the tricky problem of who to honour. At least four scientists have been key to Crispr’s development, namely Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna, George Church and Fang Zheng, and we all know what the Nobel committees think of numbers greater than three.


Are the Nobels fit for purpose?

The question gets asked every year, and not only by those who miss out on the prizes. Writing in the Observer, Robin McKie points out that Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society and joint winner of the 2009 chemistry Nobel, is critical of the awards in his book Gene Machine. The biologist argues they have “increasingly become a lottery” and are part of a global awards system “beset by cronyism”. In the same article, Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, laments that only three sciences get Nobel awards. “Mathematics is ignored, as are computing, robotics and artificial intelligence as well as environmental sciences,” he says. Meanwhile Brian Keating, a cosmologist at the University of California, San Diego, takes on the “rule of three” – the maximum number of people named for a science prize. “Apart from leading to examples of scientific injustice, the rule of three reinforces the layperson’s impression that science is done by one or two lone geniuses – usually white males – working without vast support networks behind them,” he says.

And let’s not forget how few women get these prizes. Of 214 medicine laureates, only 12 are women. The last female winner was Youyou Tu in 2015, and before that, May-Britt Moser in 2014. Incidentally, the situation is far worse in physics, a field where a woman has not won the Nobel in 55 years.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the British astrophysicist who was passed over for the 1974 physics Nobel after she discovered pulsars, maintains that not winning has meant a whole load more parties. Last month, she landed the special Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics, worth a Nobel-busting $3m (£2.3m). Bell, who is donating the whole pile to help students underrepresented in physics, told me:

I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize. If you get a Nobel prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.


Last year's winners

The 2017 Nobel prize in medicine went to three US researchers for their decades-long effort to unravel the workings of the 24-hour body clock. Jeffrey Hall at the University of Maine, Michael Rosbash at Brandeis University and Michael Young at the Rockefeller University all witnessed first-hand disruption to their circadian rhythms when they heard they’d won in 5am calls from Stockholm.

In the words of Juleen Zierath of the Nobel academy, the scientists raised “awareness of the importance of a proper sleep hygiene”.


The Nobel season begins

It’s that time of year again. Over the coming days, a select few scientists will receive a phone call from Sweden, fear it’s an elaborate spoof, overcome their disbelief, and finally accept that they have joined the elite club of Nobel laureates.

The annual handout of the world’s top gongs kicks off today with the award of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine from the Nobel assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

It’s the kudos that matters of course, the recognition of work deemed worthy, but let’s not forget the 9m Swedish krona (£775,000) that comes with each prize. It’s not what a millennial fashion blogger can earn on Instagram, of course, but what benefits, really, have scientists brought the world in discovering penicillin, HIV, and cancer-causing viruses; in developing treatments for diphtheria, tuberculosis, yellow fever and malaria; in understanding the immune system, hormones, the nervous system, human blood groups, fundamentals of vision and hearing, and the structure of DNA; by inventing MRI scanners, IVF and stem cell therapies?

Today’s announcement of the medicine prize is due no earlier than 10.30am UK time. It will be followed by the physics prize on Tuesday and the chemistry prize on Wednesday, both from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences from 10.45am UK on the day. Do join us for live coverage!



Ian Sample

The GuardianTramp

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