Nobel Prize-winning Science is Key to New Treatments for Cancer

WASHINGTON (October 1, 2018) — Today, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2018 was awarded jointly to James P. Allison (University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center) and Tasuku Honjo (Kyoto University, Japan) “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”

In describing the selection, the prize committee wrote, “Cancer kills millions of people every year and is one of humanity’s greatest health challenges. By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells this year’s Nobel Laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.”

That therapy is at the heart of an increasing number of standard treatments and many ongoing clinical trials at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, including an advance in small cell lung cancer announced just last week by Stephen Liu, MD, associate professor of medicine at Georgetown Lombardi.

In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine Sept. 25, Liu and his colleagues showed an increase in survival for those with late-stage small cell lung cancer with the addition of immunotherapy to standard chemotherapy.

“This is a tremendous and exciting advancement,” says Liu. “Small cell lung cancer is the most lethal subtype of lung cancer. The standard treatment has been in place since the 1980s. With the early incorporation of immunotherapy (atezolizumab), this study has been the first in decades to show an improvement in survival. Immunotherapy offers the potential for a more durable, meaningful response, and has become an integral part of our therapy for lung cancer.”

Immunotherapy treatments have improved the outcome of patients with more than 20 cancer types and have already become standard of care in over 15 cancer indications, says immunotherapy specialist Michael Atkins, MD, deputy director of Georgetown Lombardi.

“I have been working in cancer immunotherapy for three decades,” he says. “We knew from our work that the immune system, if properly activated, could recognize and eliminate cancer, but we couldn’t figure out how to do so within the tumor microenvironment. Allison and Honjo discovered immune checkpoints, which are physiologic brakes on the immune system which when released, enable the immune system to identify cancer cells as foreign and destroy them.”

Researchers at Georgetown Lombardi, including Atkins and Liu, have played a critical role in the development of these treatments and are continuing to study new ways of applying these approaches to improve the lives of cancer patients everywhere.

“This discovery has changed metastatic melanoma, a cancer that I treat, from one of the most deadly cancers — with a life expectancy of under a year — to a disease where more than half the patients can now be expected to be cured,” says Atkins.

About Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center
Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center is designated by the National Cancer Institute as a comprehensive cancer center — the only cancer center of its kind in the Washington, D.C. area. A part of Georgetown University Medical Center and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, Georgetown Lombardi seeks to improve the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cancer through innovative basic and clinical research, patient care, community education and outreach, and the training of cancer specialists of the future. Connect with Georgetown Lombardi on Facebook (Facebook.com/GeorgetownLombardi) and Twitter (@LombardiCancer).

About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis — or “care of the whole person.” The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization, which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health. Connect with GUMC on Facebook (Facebook.com/GUMCUpdate) and Twitter (@gumedcenter). Connect with Georgetown University School of Medicine on Facebook (Facebook.com/somgeorgetown), Twitter (@gumedicine) and Instagram (@GeorgetownMedicine).