Immunotherapy effective for wide range of tumors: Japanese scientist

  • Tasuku Honjo, 2014 Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science
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San Diego, April 5 (CNA) Clinical trials have shown that immunotherapy is effective for a wide range of tumors and has few adverse effects in patients, prominent Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo said during a speech in San Diego Tuesday.

Comparing the difference between immunotherapy and chemotherapy, Honjo said chemotherapy only kills a small number of cancer cells, while helping cancer cells to develop resistance to treatment.

Over 200 clinical trials have shown that immunotherapy is effective and more long-lasting than chemotherapy, Honjo said during the Tang Prize Lecture series at the annual Experimental Biology meeting.

One woman with ovarian cancer received immunotherapy treatment, and after four months of treatment, almost all of her tumor was gone, the Kyoto University professor said.

He added, however, that there are still challenges to overcome. For example, although the side effects of immunotherapy are milder compared to other cancer treatments, autoimmune symptoms inevitably develop, Honjo said.

Honjo discovered PD-1 (programmed cell death protein-1) in 1992, and later established it as an inhibitor of the T-cell, a type of lymphocyte that plays a central role in cell-mediated immunity.

Anti-PD1 or anti-CTLA-4 therapies involve the use of monoclonal antibodies that block inhibitory immune checkpoints and therefore boost the immune system against tumors.

Speaking to a CNA reporter after his speech, Honjo said his team is reaching success in enhancing anti-PD-1 treatment for cancer and identifying new chemicals, and "will soon be able to publish something very important."

In 2014, anti-PD-1 antibodies nivolumab and/or pembrolizumab were approved in Japan and the United States to treat patients with advanced melanoma or melanoma that cannot be removed by surgery.

In 2015, the United States approved the use of nivolumab to treat lung cancer, while the EU approved its use to treat advanced melanoma.

The weekly science magazine New Scientist published an article on March 2, saying immune checkpoint inhibitors could be "cancer's penicillin moment."

Honjo shared the first Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science in 2014 with James P. Allison of the United States.

The Tang Prize was established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑) in 2012 to complement the Nobel Prize and to honor top researchers and leaders in the fields of sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology, and the rule of law.

(By Tsao Yu-fan and Christie Chen)