The joint winners of the first Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science yesterday said they hoped the prize would attract more young people to the field.
James Allison of the US and Tasuku Honjo of Japan said at a press conference in Taipei that the prize “will certainly help us further advance our research in various ways,” after sharing the first-ever prize a day earlier for discoveries that have helped advance immunotherapy.
“We’re recognized by this award and that affects other people’s recognition,” Honjo said.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll feel it’s much easier to get the grant,” he said to laughter from the media.
The award can also help attract young people to continue and expand important research, the 72-year-old immunologist said.
Allison said the prize has drawn global attention and given recognition to the whole field of immunotherapy for cancer treatment, which he described as being held in “lower esteem for a long time.”
“Cancer doctors scoffed at whether the immune system can actually do anything, but I think we’ve shown them that we can,” he said. “Now we can say: ‘Hey, you are wrong.’”
Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University, discovered programmed cell death protein 1 (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 for the treatment of cancer.
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.
Allison, 65, an immunology professor at the MD Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas, was the first to identify cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA-4), a protein receptor that down-regulates the immune system, in 1995.
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.
The research led to development of a monoclonal antibody drug that was approved by the FDA in 2011 to treat melanoma. The therapy and a combination of anti-CTLA-4 and anti-PD-1 regimen have been shown to dramatically improve the long-term survival rates of cancer patients.
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