US researcher James Allison and Japanese researcher Tasuku Honjo have won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their ground-breaking work on manipulating the immune system to combat cancer.

“By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells this year’s Nobel Laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy,” said the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.

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

Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after exploring 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.

“The Nobel Prize-winning discoveries made by these scientists has revolutionised not only our understanding of the immune system and cancer, but also the field of cancer treatment,” commented Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician.

“Thanks to this groundbreaking work, our own immune system’s innate power against cancer has been realised and harnessed into treatments that continue to save the lives of patients. For cancers such as advanced melanoma, lung, and kidney, these immune-boosting drugs have transformed the outlook for many patients who had run out of options.”