One of the most anticipated events in the fields of pharmacology and medicine, the conference of the Asia Pacific Federation of Pharmacologists (APFP), convened every four years, kicked off on November 26 at the Taipei International Convention Center and was attended by scholars and experts from more than 10 countries in Asia. Prof. Tasuku Honjo, 2018 Nobel Prize and 2014 Tang Prize laureate, delivered the opening speech, “Future Perspective of Cancer Immunotherapy,” at 6p.m. Taipei time (GMT+8), raising the curtain for this three and a half day meeting. In addition, the Tang Prize Foundation joined forced with The Pharmacological Society in Taiwan to hold the “Tang Prize Laureate’s Lecture for Biopharmaceutical Science.” Co-hosted by Dr. Wen-Chang Chang, chair of Taipei Medical University’s board of directors, and Dr. Yun Yen, chair professor at Taipei Medical University, this special session features talks given by three 2020 laureates, who will elaborate on the role cytokines play in inflammation and the COVID-19 disease as well as possible treatments. Apart from sharing their half a century’s journeys that saw their cytokine research transition from basic science to clinical applications, the laureates will also get online from their home countries to answer questions from the audience on site.
In his opening lecture, Prof. Honjo, appearing via video link, explained in simple language that the principle of cancer immunotherapy is to evoke responses from immune cells so they can recognize and attack cancer cells and that we can enhance the function of T cells by blocking the signals of PD-1 and PD-L1. As of 2014, immunotherapy has been used to treat more than 20 kinds of cancer, such as melanoma, lung cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cervical cancer, esophageal cancer, and so on. Moreover, more than 1000 clinical trials are being carried out right now on different types of tumors. Notably, even after the treatment stops, its effect will endure. Besides, large-scale cancer genome projects have allowed scientists to acquire new knowledge of neo-antigens. Because of the tumor heterogeneity, it’s difficult to kill all cancer cells by specific chemotherapy. Choosing to do so could face the risk of relapse and the growth of resistant cells. Lymphocytes, on the other hand, can recognize many different neo-antigens and attack the mutant clones. That is the main reason why immunotherapy is more effective than chemotherapy.
Prof. Honjo also reminded us that as promising as immunotherapy has proved to be, there are still key issues that remain unresolved. Therefore, we need to find good biomarkers to predict patients’ responses. Currently, many scientists are also trying to improve its efficacy through combination therapies. Age, Prof. Honjo pointed out, is a risk factor for cancer. The ability of our immune systems to combat cancer cells will decline with age. In vivo study showed that blocking PD-1 and PD-L1 cannot effectively stymie tumor proliferation in aged mice, but we can stimulate T cells with xeno-antigens or allo-antigens to reverse the anti-tumor effect. What’s more, allogenetic tumor cells, he informed us, have been used as a vaccine in many ongoing clinical trials. In the final part of the lecture, Prof. Honjo mentioned the importance of gut microbiome in regulating the immune system and its anti-tumor response. Besides PD-1 blockade, the activation of T cells can be achieved through a dysregulation of microbiota homeostasis caused by the deficiency in AID in B cells or IgA production. He concluded that the biology we have observed in PD-1 knockout mice was very complicated. Thus, in situations where T cells are expanding, we need to pay close attention to occurrences such as the consumption or shift of metabolites, behavioral changes, and even gut bacterial changes.
The Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science has been awarded biennially since 2014. It aims to recognize original biopharmaceutical and biomedical research that has led to significant advances towards preventing, diagnosing and/or treating major human diseases in order to improve human health. In 1992, Prof. Honjo discovered PD-1 and subsequently established that PD-1 is an inhibitory receptor that regulates T cell responses and that it is crucial to tumor cells’ mechanisms to evade the immune response. These groundbreaking discoveries paved the way for the development of cancer immunotherapy, which was selected by the Science magazine in 2013 as the number one scientific breakthrough of the year. In 2014, Prof. Honjo was awarded the inaugural Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science for the discovery of PD-1 as immune inhibitory molecule that led to its applications in cancer immunotherapy.
On the afternoon of November 27, three 2020 Tang Prize laureates in Biopharmaceutical Science, Drs. Marc Feldmann, Charles Dinarello, and Tadamitsu Kishimoto, will deliver their respective laureate’s lecture in succession at the special Tang Prize session at APFP. What they have achieved has changed the world. The biologics developed because of their research have benefited hundreds of thousands of patients suffering from autoimmune or inflammatory diseases, COVID-19 and cancer. To help the public gain a better understanding of the latest progress made in biomedical sciences, the Tang Prize Foundation will make these three lectures available on its official website ( https://www.tang-prize.org) and YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/theTangPrize) afterwards.