The first Tang Prize for Biopharmaceutical Science has been awarded to Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., of Japan's Kyoto University for their research leading to cancer immunotherapy.
"Both scholars' discoveries have opened a new therapeutic era in medicine," said Lee Yuan-tseh, Ph.D., Taiwan's winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, at the award announcement in Taipei, Taiwan, this week.
Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin established the biennial Tang Prize in December 2012. The 2014 prizes provide a cash award of NT$40 million ($1.3 million) and research grant of NT$10 million.
Allison launched an entirely new way to treat cancer by blocking molecules on immune system T cells that turn off immune response. The treatment, called immune checkpoint blockade, grew out of his basic science research to understand the biology of T cells - the immune system's customized attackers.
"Receiving the Tang Prize is a great honor for me, as well as recognition of the growing importance of cancer immunotherapy," Allison said.
Allison developed an antibody to block CTLA-4, an off-switch on T cells, to unleash immune attack on tumors. Ipilimumab, a drug based on his antibody, has extinguished untreatable late-stage melanoma in 22 percent of patients in clinical trials for three years or longer, unprecedented results. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug, now called Yervoy, for metastatic melanoma in 2011. Honjo discovered the second immune checkpoint on T cells, called PD1. A variety of experimental drugs to block PD1 and its activating ligand, PD-L1, are showing great promise in clinical trials.
Allison and Honjo were selected from hundreds of international nominees for the award, which recognizes original research that has led to significant advances in preventing, diagnosing and treating major human diseases. Academia Sinica, Taiwan's preeminent academic organization, similar to the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, administered award selection.
Immune checkpoint blockade therapy is spreading to other types of cancers through clinical trials. Researchers are studying how these drugs work in combination with targeted therapies, chemotherapy and each other as well as why they only work for some patients.
Allison is executive director of MD Anderson's immunotherapy platform, which addresses these questions and supports immunotherapy research across multiple cancer types, including the Moon Shots Program, established in 2012 to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths.
Allison also is deputy director of the David H Koch Center for Applied Research of Genitourinary Cancers and holds the Vivian L. Smith Distinguished Chair in Immunology at MD Anderson.