Tasuku Honjo currently at Kyoto University in Japan and James Allison now at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston separately discovered how to use the body's own immune system to fight cancer.
The duo will share the Nobel prize sum of nine million Swedish kronor (about $1.01 million or 870,000 euros).
The prize recognizes Allison's basic science discoveries on the biology of T cells, the adaptive immune system's soldiers, and his invention of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer. Instead of targeting the tumor cells themselves, it releases the brakes on immune cells, allowing them to attack cancer cells.
In the past decade, immunotherapies that worked to inhibit these brakes have been trialed in patients with advanced melanoma, while others are now being trialed in lung and prostate cancers. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer.
"The booming field of immunotherapy that these discoveries have precipitated is still relatively in its infancy, so it's exciting to consider how this research will progress in the future", said Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician.
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Their game-changing discoveries in cancer treatment involve harnessing and manipulating the immune system to fight cancer.
Commenting on the Nobel announcement, Kevin Harrington, a professor at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, said the work had revolutionized cancer treatment. Before protein inhibitors were invented cancer treatments were restricted to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
In a statement, the university's president, Gregory L. Fenves, called Allison's work "heroic", adding that "he richly deserves the Nobel Prize".
MD Anderson created a website for its first scientist to become a Nobel laureate and issued a news release along with a timeline of Allison's accomplishments.
Also attending the news conference was his 75-year-old wife, Shigeko, who said, "I have taken upon myself the job of supporting my husband, so I am very happy that he received the Nobel Prize". And more recently, scientists have found that combining the two targets can be even more effective in cancer treatment, particularly in combating melanoma.
Therapy developed from Honjo's work led to long-term remission in patients with metastatic cancer that had been considered essentially untreatable, the Nobel Assembly said.