Combating cancer one Nobel Prize at a time

Fighting cancer can be a thankless job, but several scientists who have made significant contributions to the advancement of cancer treatments are getting the recognition they deserve this week after being awarded the Nobel Prize.

Through their work with immunotherapy and antibodies, several Nobel Prize winners are helping combat cancer

The Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious award available in the fields of literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, economics and activism for peace. (Paramonov Alexand/Shutterstock)

Fighting cancer can be a thankless job, but several scientists who have made significant contributions to the advancement of cancer treatments are getting the recognition they deserve this week after being awarded the Nobel Prize.

James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in cancer immunotherapy.

While Sir Gregory P. Winter received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work, which has particular applications to the anti-cancer strategies developed by Allison and Honjo.

Frances H. Arnold and George P. Smith also shared the chemistry award, but their prize was for their work around harnessing evolution.

Utilizing the power of the body's immune system

Allison and Honjo figured out how to use the body's immune system to be more efficient in killing the cancer cells that develop.

Immunotherapy has become the fourth pillar in the cancer treatment plan, in conjunction with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

The breakthrough was discovering that our immune system has a brake pedal that slows it down from attacking our cells.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2018 was awarded jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation." (Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Media)

"There are, built into the immune system, these inhibitory circuits that stop the immune system at a certain point, so that it doesn't hurt normal tissues, [but] that also keeps it from attacking tumour cells as effectively as the T Cells might," said Allison, chair of the department of immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. "And so we found a way to temporarily suspend the brakes and let them take off."

In practice, Allison's method was able to essentially cure a Stage 4 skin cancer patient who was given months to live before this experimental treatment and is still alive 19 years later. It seems to work best for skin cancer or melanomas, curing up to 60 per cent of patients.

Honjo shared this prize for his work in characterizing a brake pedal that works at a different point in the attack strategy for cancer cells, called PD-1. His team also developed inhibitors that could block the brake pedal and ramp up anti-cancer therapy.

The PD-1 work is very effective at treating and even curing some lung cancer, lymphoma, renal cancer and also skin cancers.

Developing antibodies as honing devices

One of three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Winter's work has connections to the breakthroughs Allison and Honjo have made in immunotherapy.

Little proteins called antibodies are essential because they stick on and target abnormalities in the body to be destroyed by our immune system.

Winter figured out a way to make antibodies safer in patients and to make them more targeted. In other words, he can make the tools used for cancer immunotherapy and many other therapeutic strategies much more effective than ever before.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018 was divided, one half awarded to Frances H. Arnold "for the directed evolution of enzymes", the other half jointly to George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter "for the phage display of peptides and antibodies." (Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Media)

The Nobel Prize laureates have used them as little targeting devices to hone in on cancer cells instead of the healthy cells of the body.

Despite the achievements, both Winter and Allison said they are just basic scientists who got lucky because their work happened to translate to the medical field.

It's work that has made the development of targeted cancer therapies more efficient and more effective — even if it's not what they set out to do.


Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur has been the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One since 2013. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and studied how worm gonads develop. She now teaches at the University of Alberta as a contract lecturer in cell biology and genetics.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?