Taipei, Sept. 19 (CNA) The joint winners of the first Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science said Friday that they hope the prize will attract more young talent to the field.
After giving lectures, James P. Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan said at a press conference in Taipei that the prize "will certainly help us further advance our research in various ways," after sharing the first-ever prize a day earlier for discoveries that have helped advance immunotherapy.
"We're recognized by this award, and that affects other people's recognition," Honjo said. "I'm pretty sure we'll feel much easier to get the grant," he joked to laughter from the media.
The award can also help attract young people to work in the field and continue and expand important research, the 72-year-old immunologist said.
Allison echoed Honjo's view, saying that the prize has drawn global attention and given recognition to the whole field of immunotherapy for cancer therapy, which he described as being held in "lower esteem for a long time."
"Cancer doctors scoffed at whether the immune system can actually do anything, but I think we've shown them that we can," he said. "Now we can say 'hey, you are wrong.'"
Asked if they felt pressure doing their research, Allison answered "some, perhaps," but added that he and Honjo just "try to understand fundamental aspects of the immune system from different approaches."
It was a pleasure doing the basic science and it was even better to find out that their work could contribute to the benefit of humankind, in line with the overall goal of the Tang Foundation, the 66-year-old American immunologist said.
Honjo, meanwhile, said there was always competition, but added that he always hoped to make a contribution to society, so "it's very spontaneous, and pressure."
He and Allison have never been competitors, and, in a way, their independent research helped them develop the bigger concept of immunotherapy, Honjo added.
The two immunologists also admitted that immunotherapy for cancer treatment is now applied to only late-stage patients but ideally, it should be applied at an earlier stage.
"It takes time. We have to go step by step and demonstrate if it's really worth doing so," Honjo said.
Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University, discovered programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) in 1992, which he later established is an inhibitor of the T cell, a type of lymphocyte that plays a central role in cell-mediated immunity.
Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an investigational drug and are being developed for the treatment of cancer.
One such antibody is expected to be launched in 2015 for treatment of non-small cell lung cancer and has been hailed by some as having the potential to "change the landscape" in lung cancer treatment. Another antibody is in clinical testing for other types of cancers.
Honjo has received many awards and honors, including Japan's Order of Culture in 2013, the Robert Koch Prize in 2012 and the Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy in 1996.
He was elected as a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2001, a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in 2003, and a member of the Japan Academy in 2005.
Allison, 66, an immunology professor at the MD Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas, became the first scientist to identify cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA-4), a protein receptor that down-regulates the immune system, in 1995.
CTLA-4 is found on the surface of T cells, which lead cellular immune attacks on antigens. Allison's team developed an antibody that blocks CTLA-4 activity and showed in 1996 that this antibody is able to help fight several different types of tumors in mice.
The research led to development of a monoclonal antibody drug that was approved by the U.S. FDA in 2011 to treat melanoma.
The therapy and a combination of anti-CTLA-4 and anti-PD-1 regimen have been shown to dramatically improve the long-term survival rates of cancer patients.
The Tang Prize was established in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin to honor leading lights from around the world in four fields: sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology and rule of law.
Winners of the award are selected by panels of judges convened by Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top research institution. The panels comprise prominent researchers and scholars from Taiwan and abroad, including Nobel laureates.
(By James Lee)