Tang Prize Laureate on the State of Cancer Immunotherapy

  • Tasuku Honjo, 2014 Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science
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In its second year of ten in promoting education in biology, the Tang Prize Lecture series at Experimental Biology will take place on April 5, 2016, in San Diego. There the 2014 Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science Tasuku Honjo will address an audience of 300-plus on cancer immunology and his work on the inhibitory receptor PD-1. Chien Shu, National Medal of Science awardee and director of the Institute of Engineering in Medicine at UC San Diego, will host the event, with Jenn-Chuan Chern representing the Tang Prize Foundation as its CEO.
Honjo’s lab discovered PD-1 in 1992 at Kyoto University, where he is currently professor of Immunology and Genomic Medicine. He later established PD-1 as an inhibitory regulator on T-cells and that blocking it was equivalent to “taking the foot off the break” of the immune response. Drugs that follow this basic approach have been developed and approved by the FDA, and have seen significant success in the treatment of a subset of cancers, ranging from melanoma to ovarian.
Combinations of multiple inhibitor drugs working through the PD-1 pathway have provided many sufferers with a mode of therapy safer than nonspecific treatments, like chemotherapy, which tend to target both cancer and healthy cells. One of the notable examples of the new treatment’s success was touted in the article “Closing in On Cancer” in the March 5, 2016 issue of New Scientist. Former-President Jimmy Carter was recently given a clean bill of health thanks to drugs which works on the PD-1 receptor. In Carter’s case, it was a brain tumor; but the treatment has seen promising responses from other cancer types as well. While it is not a definitive victory over cancer, it does suggest a turning point in the war—similar to the discovery of penicillin, quotes the article. Penicillin was a turning point in history. And if the analogy turns out to be true, cancer may just become history, too.
The first year of the Tang Prize Lecture series was delivered by James P. Allison on a separate immune mechanism, the inhibitory receptor CTLA-4, and was attended by an enthusiastic group of scientists bullish on the new possibilities offered by immunotherapy. But it has not always been a clear-cut path. Cancer immunotherapy research struggled until clinical trials showed promise for treatment by anti-CTLA-4 and anti-PD-1. Definitive validation came after cancer immunology was named 2013 “Breakthrough of the Year” by Science Magazine; just one year later Allison and Honjo shared the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science for their separate discoveries and pharmaceutical developments.
Honjo and Allison are two of the five inaugural laureates of the Tang Prize, which was founded in 2012 by Samuel Yin and which awarded its first year in 2014. The prize awards outstanding contributions to humanity in four fields: Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law. Each recipient receives a NT$40 million cash prize in addition to a NT$10 million grant, which must be destined to a project that invests in the future of the field. This year marks the second instance of the prize; the newest round of awardees are to be announced on June 18-21, 2016, and will receive the medal and cash prize at the award ceremony on September 25 in Taipei.
The Tang Prize Lecture at Experimental Biology is delivered yearly or bi-yearly by recent recipients of the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science. It is intended to build on the foundation of the prize field by giving it a real-world platform for the sharing of new and forward-looking ideas among the world’s scientific community.
For more information on the Tang Prize and its laureates, please visit www.tang-prize.org.