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Jim Allison. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Jim Allison, today's winner of the first Nobel prize for cancer therapy along with Kyoto University's Tasuku Honjo, says he expects immunotherapy to be the "fourth pillar" in cancer treatments, along with radiation, chemotherapy and other gene-targeting treatments.

Why it matters: Immunotherapy treatments for cancer had a slow start, but persistent research has led to breakthroughs in the technology. Allison is responsible for developing the checkpoint blockade approach, which locates and blocks a key protein (CTLA-4) so that the immune system can attack cancer cells.

The backdrop: Allison, whose work at UC-Berkeley led to the discovery of CTLA-4, says early research had failures because they "started with insufficient knowledge."

  • Allison said he discovered the protein because he "wanted to know how T-cells work," and eventually tested the technique on a patient with advanced melanoma. That patient has since remained cancer-free more than 14 years.
  • His discovery led to the first drug that binds the CTLA-4 protein, called ipilimumab (or Yervoy), approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2011. Yervoy's use has been extended to target other cancers, including some types of lung, kidney, bladder and Hodgkin lymphoma.

Meanwhile, the other prize recipient, Honjo, discovered a protein in 1992 that also inhibits the immune system, called PD-1. In 2015, the FDA approved anti-PD-1 therapy for malignant melanoma, and later extended the approval to non-small-cell lung, gastric and several other cancers. Two PD-1 therapies include pembrolizumab (or Keytruda) and nivolumab (or Opdivo).

  • Allison says that in many cases, the combination of both CTLA-4 and PD-1 offers a more potent punch. The success rate went from about 20% for CTLA-4 by itself to 60% when both were taken together.

What they're saying:

“By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.”
— Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm announced
"Jim’s work illuminates the fundamental mechanisms governing how cancers evade the immune system and has led to a new class of drugs that are producing Lazarus results for patients suffering from cancer. His science and passion has saved and will continue to save many lives."
— Ronald DePinho, professor and past president, MD Anderson, tells Axios

What's next: Allison says research in the fundamentals of how the immune system works, how immunotherapy can be combined and how to mitigate side effects is still needed.

What to watch:

  • The success rate varies among cancers — for instance, melanoma has 60% curative rate from immunotherapy, which is higher than many others.
  • One theory, he says, is that immunotherapy appears to work best with cancers with a high level of mutations (like melanoma, which can have up to 3,000 mutations/cell) to be targeted by T-cells.
  • While he says scientists tend to avoid the term "cancer cure," Allison believes further research will show immunotherapy used in combination with the three other pillars "will be curative to a lot of patients" and adds that "there is hope for cancer patients."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - World

Pentagon: 8,500 troops on high alert for possible deployment to eastern Europe

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has placed 8,500 U.S. troops on "heightened preparedness to deploy" to eastern Europe in case NATO activates its rapid-response force over tensions with Russia, the Pentagon announced Monday.

Why it matters: No decisions have been made to actually deploy U.S. forces, but the heightened alert level will allow the military to rapidly shore up NATO's eastern flank in the event that Russia invades Ukraine. The Pentagon warned that Russia has shown "no signs of de-escalating," and continues to amass troops on Ukraine's borders.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden calls Fox News reporter a "stupid son of a b---h" on hot mic

President Biden blasted Fox News' Peter Doocy on Monday after the reporter asked if the nation's soaring inflation is a political liability, saying, "what a stupid son of a b----h."

The latest: The president called Doocy Monday evening, the reporter told Fox's Sean Hannity. "He cleared the air and I appreciated it. We had a nice call," Doocy said when asked whether the president apologized, adding: "I don't need anyone to apologize to me."

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Fauci: "Confident" Omicron cases will peak in February.
  2. Vaccines: The shifting definition of fully vaccinated.
  3. Politics: New York Supreme Court strikes down Gov. Hochul's mask mandate for public areas — Sarah Palin tests positive for COVID, delaying defamation trial — Virginia school boards sue Gov. Youngkin for lifting mask mandate.
  4. World: U.K. to lift travel testing requirement for fully vaccinated — Beijing Olympic Committee lowers testing threshold ahead of Games.
  5. Variant tracker

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