AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Two scientists simply curious about understanding how our immune system works ended up making discoveries that rocked the world of cancer treatment. The Nobel Assembly in Sweden today announced that two men will share this year's Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris has our story.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Jim Allison says he's always had a personal interest in cancer. His mother died of lymphoma when he was 10, and an uncle died of lung cancer. But when Allison went into science, he did so because he was curious about how the world works. That curiosity led him to an honor many around him had been expecting him to get, the Nobel Prize.
JAMES ALLISON: The reason I'm really thrilled about this is I'm a basic scientist. I did not get into these studies to try to cure cancer. I got into them because I wanted to know how T cells work.
HARRIS: T cells are a vital component of the human immune system. But when Allison started out, he says, people simply didn't understand what they did. In the 1990s, Allison was working at UC Berkeley when he discovered a vital element of T cells. They had what's essentially a brake pedal to keep them from going too crazy.
ALLISON: I said, well, let's just disable the brakes and see if that will allow the immune system to attack cancer. And it did.
HARRIS: This breaking system is called a checkpoint. And once Allison discovered this mechanism, drug developers set to work creating drugs to block checkpoints, drugs called checkpoint inhibitors. Meanwhile at Kyoto University in Japan, Dr. Tasuku Honjo was independently at work on the same biological puzzle. He discovered another set of T cell breaks, so he shares the Nobel Prize. From this science has emerged a multibillion-dollar effort to develop market and improve checkpoint inhibitors.
ALLISON: What I was told by the Nobel committee when I was called this morning - that this was the first prize they'd ever given for cancer therapy. They've given some for - the causing cancer before, but this is the first time for cancer therapy.
HARRIS: These checkpoint inhibitors have led to some remarkable successes. For example, former President Jimmy Carter was diagnosed with advanced melanoma which had spread to his brain, but a checkpoint inhibitor vanquished his cancer. Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, president of the American Society for Clinical Oncology, says checkpoint inhibitors have generated tremendous excitement because of remarkable stories like this.
MONICA BERTAGNOLLI: Unfortunately, that is still a small percentage of patients.
HARRIS: The race is now on to figure out how to make these drugs effective in a lot more people with a lot more types of cancer. Jim Allison, now at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, says now that they understand the basic rules, they can set to work on improvements. And he for one is optimistic that this new branch of cancer treatment will end up saving many more lives. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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