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Kyoto University's Tasuku Honjo wins Nobel Prize in medicine for anti-cancer research

Tasuku Honjo, distinguished professor at Kyoto University, speaks at a news conference at the university in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward on Oct. 1, 2018, after it was announced that he has won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine. (Mainichi/Ai Kawahira)
In this Sept. 18, 2015 file photo, Dr. James P. Allison, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, poses for a photo in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Tasuku Honjo, distinguished professor at Kyoto University, has won the 2018 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his discovery of a protein that helped lead to immunotherapeutic methods of cancer treatment, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden announced on Oct. 1.

The prize will be presented to Honjo, 76, and James Allison, professor at the University of Texas.

The Karolinska Institute appreciated Honjo's discovery of PD-1 -- a type of protein that regulates immune system function -- which led to the development of cancer therapies unleashing the immune system on tumors by disabling the protein's function.

Honjo is the first Japanese national to win the Nobel Prize in two years and the 26th overall. The award ceremony is scheduled to be held in Stockholm on Dec. 10, and a total of 9 million Swedish kronur, or approximately 115 million yen, in prize money will be presented to Honjo and Allison.

At a news conference in Kyoto, Honjo expressed joy at winning the prize. "It's an honor to win such a great prize. I'd like to express my gratitude to many people, including my co-researchers, students, those who supported our research and my family," he said.

He said he is happy that the results of his research are being clinically applied and saving the lives of patients with serious cancers.

"I discovered PD-1 in 1992. Our basic research has led to clinical applications and helped save patients with serious illnesses. When I'm thanked by patients who recover, I truly feel the significance of our research," he commented.

In 1992, a research team led by Honjo found the PD-1 protein in T cells, a kind of lymphocyte that controls the immune system, and confirmed the protein regulates immune response. The team thought that if this function was disabled, it would enhance immunity and could be applied to fight cancer.

The development of anti-cancer drugs progressed based on this discovery. In September 2014, Ono Pharmaceutical Co. released Nivolumab, a PD-1 antibody drug under the trade name "Opdivo."

Since then, many pharmaceutical companies all over the world have begun developing immunotherapeutic anti-cancer drugs using a similar mechanism.

Honjo was born in the city of Kyoto in 1942. He entered the Kyoto University medical school in 1960, and completed a graduate course at the university in 1971. Following study in the United States, he became a professor at Osaka University in 1979 when he was 37. He moved to the faculty of Kyoto University in 1984, and achieved a number of breakthroughs including the discovery of PD-1. He became professor emeritus at the university in 2005.

Honjo has won a number of prestigious prizes, including the Asahi Prize in 1982, the Tang Prize in 2014, and the Kyoto Prize in 2016. He was awarded the Order of Culture in 2013.

(Japanese original by Shinpei Torii, Science & Environment News Department)

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