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2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine awarded to researchers for cancer breakthrough

Immunologists that showed how the body's immune system could be used to fight cancer honored with science's most prestigious award.

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Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Assembly

Discovering how to unlock the power of the immune system to destroy tumors has seen the first of 2018's Nobel Prizes awarded to two immunologists on Monday.

James P. Allison, of the MD Anderson Cancer Centre at the University of Texas, and Tasuku Honjo, of Kyoto University, Japan were awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation".

Their significant body of work elucidated proteins of the immune system that can block the body from defending itself against cancer -- leading to breakthrough treatments that could use the body's own defenses to attack cancer cells known as "checkpoint inhibitors."

A functioning immune system is able to distinguish friend from foe in a precarious balancing act. It needs to be able to detect foreign threats like bacteria or viruses and differentiate them from the cells that make up the body. That role partly falls to a white blood cell known as a "T cell". Proteins on the surface of a T cell tell the immune system to kick into overdrive and ready it to destroy foreign threats -- but others act as blocks, telling the immune system to slow down.

Both Allison and Honjo discovered distinct proteins that were responsible for blocking the immune response: CTLA-4 and PD-1. By understanding these immune "brakes", the two had found potential new targets for therapy. Those discoveries sparked a revolution for specific cancer treatments.

In the past decade, immunotherapies that worked to inhibit these brakes have been trialed in patients with advanced melanoma, while others are currently being trialed in lung and prostate cancers.

The Nobel Prize in Physics and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be awarded on Oct. 2 and Oct. 3, respectively. The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Oct. 5. This year's Nobel Prize in Literature has been postponed.

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