Treatments that cause the immune system to attack cancer earn a Nobel

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Enlarge / The two systems developed into therapies by today's Nobel winners. For both systems, the APC is an immune cell that presents proteins to the T cell so that it can determine if they're recognized. On the left, if CTLA-4 (yellow) is engaged on the T cell, it tones down the immune response. The same thing is true for PD-1 (right), except it can be engaged by the tumor cells (pink) as well. (credit: Nobel Prize )

Today, the Nobel Prize Committee has honored two researchers for their role in pioneering a new avenue for cancer treatment, one where the therapy targets the immune system, which then goes on to attack the cancer. The researchers, James Allison of the MD Anderson Cancer Center and Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University, worked separately to identify and target proteins that help keep the immune system from attacking other cells in the body. When these proteins are inhibited, the immune system can target cancers, although at the risk of autoimmune disorders.

Immunity and cancer

Our thinking about the relationship between the immune system and cancer has undergone a number of revisions over the last century. The initial question—why doesn't the immune system attack cancers?—was seemingly answered as people developed a better understanding of how it normally keeps from attacking healthy cells. Under this view, cancer cells looked too much like a normal cell to generate a response.

But this turned out to be not quite right. People taking immunosuppressive drugs over long periods tended to have increased incidence of cancer, suggesting that the immune system was attacking and eliminating cancers all the time. The question then became on of why the immune system wasn't effective against some cancers.

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