What season is it? Well, for sure it is Nobel season! These annual awards honor the highest level of achievements in Peace, Literature, Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, Physics and Economics. The prizes were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, which he signed on November 27, 1895.

As of 2018, the Physiology or Medicine Nobel has been awarded 109 times to 216 awardees. The Chemistry Nobel has been awarded 110 times to 181 awardees since 1901. There have been only seven years in which no prizes were given. Only 39 times has the Medicine prize and only 63 times has the Chemistry prize been given to a single scientist. No more than three scientists can share the prize, and it’s not given posthumously.

Overall, U.S. scientists have earned 377 Nobels in all categories, ranking first in all prize areas except for Literature, where the U.S. ranks third. The United Kingdom ranks second in overall prizes awarded, followed by Germany, France and Sweden. As of 2017, the awards are heavily male-dominated, with only 52 female winners. If you consider the number of prizes per capita, Denmark, Switzerland, and Sweden lead the way with the most awards.

This year, James Allison and Tasuku Honjo were awarded the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine. In December, these outstanding scientists received their prizes from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in ceremonies at the City Hall in Stockholm. They will share the prize of nine million Swedish Kronor, about $1 million dollars.

The work of Dr. Allison and Dr. Honjo initially focused on expanding our understanding of the body’s immune system, which protects us from disease. In the 1990s, Dr. Allison made important discoveries which identified “checkpoints” in a type of immune cell called a T-cell. These checkpoints work to prevent the immune system from attacking normal cells. Regulating T-cells is important because an out-of-control immune system can lead to autoimmune disease, where immune cells attack normal cells. However, switching off these checkpoints is ideal when the body is under attack from cancer cells. New drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors” can turn off the checkpoints to treat cancer. This was shown first in animal models and then later in humans. Dr. Allison says that he didn’t pursue this work initially to cure cancer, but rather to understand how the immune system worked.

Dr. Honjo identified a second checkpoint that worked differently, and he developed inhibitors for this checkpoint. These drugs can also help the immune system remove cancer cells. Today, there are many checkpoint inhibitor clinical trials against a wide variety of cancers. This has led to the real hope that many cancer patients will experience long-term benefits or even cures.

The Nobels remind us of the global leadership that the U.S. has in leading the advancement of science and technology. With China and India investing heavily in these areas, we imagine they will become emerging contenders for these world-recognized achievements in coming years. The U.S. will need to continue to support research and development, including fundamental research, to maintain its global leadership in science.

Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.

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