Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine: Who Are James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo and How Did They Revolutionise Cancer Treatment?

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Dr Allison and Dr Honjo’s joint efforts showcases how different strategies immunology can come together in treating 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. This year, two leading immunologists with a formidable reputation in their respective fields, took home the title for their work in inhibiting negative immune regulations for the treatment of cancer.  Dr James P Allison and Dr Tasuku Honjo have been honoured with the distinction this year. Here's looking into the accomplishments of the two.

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James P Allison

Dr James P Allison is an American immunologist, who chairs the department of immunology and is the executive director of immunotherapy platform at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Born on August 7, 1948, Dr Allison’s discoveries have led to breakthroughs in the treatment of the deadliest of cancers. 10 Facts About Cancer You Need to Know by World Health Organization (WHO).

He has spent a large part of his career studying devising strategies to fight cancer by studying the regulation of T cell responses in the human body. His previous discoveries on the T cell receptor structure was a revolution in the field of cancer therapy.

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Dr Allison believed that for treating cancer, it is important to treat the immune system instead of a tumour. By empowering the human immune system, the body’s natural defences can put up a fight against cancer. His path-breaking approach to treat the diseases not only helped improve the treatment of cancer, but also helped the patient holistically.

Dr Tasuku Honjo

Dr Tasuku Honjo is a Japanese immunologist and the Professor of the Department of Immunology and Genomic Medicine at the Kyoto University. Dr Honju’s area of expertise is the identification of Programmed Cell Death Protein 1 (PD-1) in cancer immunotherapy. He’s also credited with establishing the basic conceptual framework of class switch recombination.

For his contributions to the field of immunology, Dr Honjo has won many awards, including the Imperial Prize, Japan Academy Prize, Robert Koch Prize and the Kyoto Prize. He has been honoured by the Japanese Government as a person of cultural merits.


Dr Honjo’s profile at Kyoto University’s website describes him as a “quiet man” who has a deep fascination to unravel mysteries. He is fascinated by immunology and prides the fact that we are living at a time where molecular biology has been thriving.

How The Two Led To a Revolution in Cancer Treatment

Dr Allison was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on a protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. His path-breaking discovery was realising how releasing this break would help unleash the immune cells, which would then attack the tumours.

At the same time, Dr Honjo a protein on immune cells that also operates as a break, but with a different mechanism. The cancer therapies that were based on his findings proved to be very effective in treating cancer.

Both Dr Allison and Dr Honjo’s joint efforts showcased how different strategies can be used to inhibit the brakes on the human immune system, which can then help in the effective treatment of cancer. Their joint discovery has been path-breaking in the treatment of cancer.