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. Research by Allison at the University of Texas in the U.S. and Honjo at Japan's Kyoto University explored how the body's immune system can be harnessed to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells.
Allison shared the award with Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University in Japan, for "their discovery of cancer therapy inhibition of negative immune regulation", according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences committee, which awards the annual prizes. Allison then developed a "checkpoint inhibitor", or a drug that releases that brake, and enables the patient's immune system to identify and confront tumors.
Honjo, 76, of Japan's Kyoto University, discovered a protein on immune cells that also serves as a brake, but through a different mechanism.
The seminal discoveries represent a "paradigmatic shift in the fight against cancer", the Nobel committee said, since they do so not by targeting the tumor cells but by tweaking the immune system.
Immunotherapy uses the body's own immune system to fight cancer instead of other methods like radiation, surgery or chemotherapy.
Mr Carter was diagnosed in 2015 with the skin cancer melanoma, which had spread to his brain. Subsequent research has extended this approach to new immune regulatory targets, most prominently PD-1 and PD-L1, with drugs approved to treat certain types and stages of melanoma, lung, kidney, bladder, gastric, liver, cervical, colorectal, and head and neck cancers and Hodgkin's lymphoma.
As The Guardian explains, the human immune system "normally seeks out and destroys mutated cells, but cancer finds sophisticated ways to hide from immune attacks", in part by "ramping up braking mechanisms created to prevent immune cells from attacking normal tissue".
"The discovery of Jim Allison led to the first drug that routinely caused patients with a metastatic disease - melanoma - - to go into complete remission", he said.
Cancer is one of the biggest health challenges faced by humanity.
Meanwhile, the fact that the literature prize will not be handed over this year has grabbed several headlines.
Born in Alice, Texas with a father who was a "country doctor", Allison said his research was motivated, in part, by the deaths of loved ones.
The prize recognizes Allison's basic science discoveries on the biology of T cells, the adaptive immune system's soldiers, and his invention of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer.
The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine is awarded every year to those who make outstanding contributions in the field of life sciences and medicine. He was found guilty of one rape, but was acquitted of the other because the victim said she was asleep and judges said her account wasn't reliable.
In an interview Monday, Allison said he wasn't trying to cure cancer but to understand how T cells work when, at the University of California, Berkeley, he was studying a protein named CTLA-4. "As I continued with my research, specialists in cancer and immunology led me along the correct path".