James Allison of the US and Tasuku Honjo of Japan were named joint recipients of the first Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science yesterday for discoveries that have helped advance immunotherapy.
“The discoveries by Dr Allison and Dr Honjo have spurred additional development of therapeutic approaches in immunotherapy and brought new hope that many types of cancers can be cured,” the Tang Prize Selection Committee said in Taipei.
Their discoveries “have opened a new therapeutic era in medicine,” it said.
The two immunologists are to share a cash prize of NT$40 million (US$1.33 million) and will each receive a medal and a certificate.
Allison and Honjo were honored for the discoveries of cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA-4) and programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) as immune inhibitory molecules that led to their use in cancer immunotherapy, said former Academia Sinica president and Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲), who announced the award winner at a ceremony as chairman of the Tang Prize Selection Committee.
The award was meaningful in that it showcased the importance of biopharmaceutical science, said Lee, who is president of the International Council for Science.
Tang Prize Foundation chief executive Chern Jenn-chuan (陳振川) said biopharmaceutical science is one of the most important topics in the 21st century, and that life quality can be improved through developments in biomedicine.
The two immunologists will attend the award ceremony in Taipei in September, as well as give speeches and interact with local researchers and young people, Chern said during a break in the ceremony.
Academia Sinica vice president Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) praised the winners’ long-time efforts, saying that the discoveries “have started a new paradigm in immunotherapy,” which appears to be more effective and more specific to certain types of cancers.
Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University, discovered PD-1 in 1992, which he later established is an inhibitor of the T cell, a type of lymphocyte that plays a central role in cell-mediated immunity.
Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an investigational drug and are being developed as a cancer treatment.
One such antibody is expected to be launched next year for treatment of non-small-cell lung cancer and has been hailed by some as having the potential to “change the landscape” in lung cancer treatment.
Another antibody is in clinical testing for other types of cancers.
Honjo, 72, has received many awards and honors, including Japan’s Order of Culture last year, the Robert Koch Prize in 2012 and the Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy in 1996.
He was elected as a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2001, a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in 2003 and a member of the Japan Academy in 2005.
Allison, 65, an immunology professor at the MD Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas, in 1995 became the first scientist to identify cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA-4), a protein receptor that down-regulates the immune system.
CTLA-4 is found on the surface of T cells, which lead cellular immune attacks on antigens. Allison’s team developed an antibody that blocks CTLA-4 activity and showed in 1996 that this antibody is able to help fight several different types of tumors in mice.