Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo, who jointly won the Nobel Medicine Prize with James P Allison of the US, is credited for his discovery of a protein that contributed to the development of an immunotherapeutic drug, opening a pathway for an altogether new way of treating cancer. Honjo, the fifth Japanese to win a Nobel in medicine, discovered the PD-1 protein, which is responsible for suppressing the immune response.
“Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer,” the Nobel Assembly said.
Honjo’s method of treating cancer by controlling the protein’s function to suppress immunity led to the development of Opdivo, a drug used against lung cancer and melanoma. Opdivo was finally approved in Japan in July 2014 and subsequently in the United States and Europe.
A native of Kyoto, Honjo spent much of his youth in the city of Ube. His interest in becoming a scientist deepened by observing Saturn and reading the biography of renowned Japanese bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi.
After graduating from the medical department of Kyoto University, Honjo studied at the Carnegie Institution for Science where he was exposed to the latest research on genes and immunology. Honjo is also well known for his discovery of activation-induced cytidine deaminase that is essential for class switch recombination and somatic hypermutation. The 76-year-old professor is presently an emeritus at Kyoto University.
Among the numerous awards and honours that Honjo has received are the Order of Culture, the Robert Koch Prize and the Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy.