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2018 Nobel Prize awarded to cancer immunotherapy pioneers

In the 1990s, the two scientists made key discoveries that led to the development of promising new cancer-fighting immunotherapy drugs.

  • The two researchers, from the U.S. and Japan, made key discoveries about the immune system's response to cancer.
  • Their work showed how to block cancer cells from crippling white blood cells.
  • Still in its early stages, immunotherapy is a promising field in cancer research.

James Allison and Tasuku Honjo have won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their innovative work in developing immunotherapy treatments to fight cancer.

James P. Allison, 70, is the chair of the department of immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and Tasuku Honjo, 76, is a professor at the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study in Japan. In the 1990s, the two scientists made separate breakthrough discoveries about the immune system that led to the development of immunotherapy drugs. They will share the $1 million prize.

Allison was in New York for an immunology conference when his son called early one morning to tell him the good news. An hour later, Allison and his colleagues were celebrating in a hotel room over champagne.

"It still hasn't completely dawned on me," said Allison, at a press conference. "I was a basic scientist. To have my work really impact people is one of the best things I could think about. It's everybody's dream."

Honjo also spoke about the personal satisfaction he gets from seeing his work benefit patients.

"When I'm thanked by patients who recover, I truly feel the significance of our research," Honjo said during a news conference at the Japanese university, according to Japanese news reports. He added: "I'd like to continue researching cancer for a while so that this immunotherapy will help save more cancer patients than ever before."

How immunotherapy works

Immunotherapy effectively removes the 'brakes' on the body's immune system, allowing for a certain type of white blood cell, called T-cells, to hunt down and kill cancer cells. Without immunotherapy treatment, cancer cells can deactivate T-cells by taking advantage of a switch on the cells, called an immune checkpoint. This shuts down the body's immune response and allows the cancer to spread unchecked.

Image: Nobel committee

Immunotherapies keep cancer-fighting T-cells active by blocking the immune checkpoints. In the 1990s, Allison and Honjo made key discoveries about immune checkpoints that later led to the development of immunotherapies that have proven successful in humans; Allison identified a checkpoint called CTLA-4, Honjo found another called PD-1.

The development and testing of immunotherapy drugs is still in early stages. However, immunotherapy has shown promising signs in recent years in combating several types of cancer, particularly lung cancer, even reversing the disease completely in some patients.

Revolutionary work

Photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Many scientists have helped develop the field of immunotherapy, but the work of Allison and Honjo helped build a foundation from which it could grow.

"I think they really deserve it," Jerome Galon, an immunologist at the Paris-based national biomedical research agency INSERM, told Nature. "You can always multiply and have many other people, but these are the obvious two first choices."

Their work "brought immunotherapy out from decades of skepticism" and has led to treatments that have improved an "untold number of people's health," Dr. Jedd Wolchok, a cancer specialist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, told The New York Times.

The Nobel committee wrote that scientists have been searching for ways to bolster the immune system against cancer for more than a century, but the progress was "modest" until the revolutionary work of Allison and Honjo.

"Allison's and Honjo's discoveries have added a new pillar in cancer therapy. It represents a completely new principle, because unlike previous strategies, it is not based on targeting the cancer cells, but rather the brakes — the checkpoints — of the host immune system," Klas Kärre, a member of the Nobel Committee and an immunologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said in a statement. "The seminal discoveries by the two laureates constitutes a paradigmatic shift and a landmark in the fight against cancer."

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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