There have actually been a number of Nobel Prizes awarded for the treatment of cancer. Now there are some new awards going to those who have developed still newer approaches to treatment. Whereas once, the treatment of cancer was focused on eradicating the cancer alone, now there is also a focus on the immune system and its role.
Cancer and Immunity
The very main reason why cancer happens is that cells go wrong in the body, they become cancerous, and then the immune system starts to ignore these cells for some reason. While it has been difficult to find out why this is the case, now there are a couple of scientists who figured it out.
As it turns out, the immune system has a sort of braking mechanism on it. This makes sense because you would not want the immune system to attack normal cells. Sometimes it does attack normal cells and that is what is known as autoimmune disease. The immune system attacking cancer would be a good example of what it should do.
During certain processes, the immune system puts on the brakes for attacking cancer cells. As a result, these cells proliferate and become deadly. If only the brakes could be let off and the immune system would continue its role, it would literally cure cancer in the individual who has it.
That is what James P. Allison and Tasuko Honjo, two independent researchers discovered. Each of them found a way to stop that braking mechanism so that the immune system will go forth and attack cancer cells to a point of destruction and thus a cancer cure.
The Brakes Being Off
There is a fine balance in the immune system. T cells are the main cells of the immune system that will attack any foreign invaders. In particular for this case, they should attack cancer cells. Normally, this is exactly what happens and, as a result, not everybody gets cancer even though cancerous cells are growing all of the time.
There is a protein on the surface of the T cells and it is called CTLA-4. James P. Allison discovered that this protein acts as the brakes on the cells to stop them from attacking cancer cells. Thus, he developed an antibody that binds to and inhibits CTLA-4. The result is an unleashing of anti-cancer activity.
Another Brake Released
Tasuko Honjo, another researcher, discovered that there is another protein called PD-1 on the surface of T cells and it also acts as a cancer brake. He also developed a way to block this protein and thus stimulate anti-cancer activity. The results were excellent.
By combining these two techniques, there is now a way to directly stimulate the immune system to wake up to cancer. This is a revolution in cancer therapy that is not to be overlooked and, in fact, both scientists got Nobel Prizes as a result. Not only that but the whole face of cancer treatment is about to change in a new direction.