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The 2018 Nobel Prizes in Science: What were they given for?

Date: Thu. April 11th, 2019, 4:00 pm-5:00 pm
Location: Rockefeller 301
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Cosponsored by the Cell Biology Program and the Departments of Chemistry and Physics

Kathleen Kash (Physics) on the prize in Physics, Gregory Tochtrop (Chemistry) on the prize in Chemistry and Alex Huang (Department of Pediatrics) on the prize in Physiology or Medicine. 

One-half of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Arthur Ashkin, “for the development of optical tweezers and their application to biological systems”. Optical tweezers use the radiation pressure of light to move small particles, and enabled Ashkin to manipulate living cells without damaging them. This work has had major impact in several fields, especially in biology, for example in developing methods to sort healthy from infected or cancerous cells, and for studying the details of how molecular motors work. The other half of the prize was awarded jointly to Gérard Morou and Donna Strickland, “for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses”. This technique lengthens optical pulses in order to avoid damaging the amplifying material, then compresses the pulses after amplification. It is the standard method for engineering high-intensity pulsed lasers, including those used for eye surgery.

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the development of techniques that harness the power of evolution as inspired by the diversity of life. One half of the award was given to Frances H. Arnold for her discoveries developing the technique of directed evolution to develop novel enzymes to catalyze chemical reactions.  The other half of the prize was shared by George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter for the development of phage display, in which a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new peptides and proteins with high affinity for a specific target.  These techniques have been used many purposes including the directed evolution of antibodies, and the production of new pharmaceuticals.   

The 2018 Novel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Drs. James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their seminal discovery of novel cancer therapies that work by inhibiting the negative immune regulation – so called “immune checkpoint blockade.” Predating the invention of radiation therapy and chemotherapy, a concept existed that infectious agents can stimulate immune responses to cancer more than 100 years ago. In the ensuing century, groundbreaking discoveries were made in the fields of basic immunology, cancer biology and tumor immunology that resulted in a greater understanding of the highly complex cellular and molecular processes governing tumor cell interactions and host immune system. In the mid-1990’s, James P. Allison and colleagues demonstrated that antibodies directed against a cell surface molecule on T cells, CTLA-4, unleashed a potent anti-tumor immune response in mice irrespective of the identities of the tumor antigens. A few years prior, Tasuku Honjo and colleagues identified PD-1, the blockade of which also resulted in regression of established tumors with evidence of potent anti-tumor immune activation and memory. The use of antibodies directed against CTLA-4, PD-1 and its ligand PD-L1 have now been approved for clinical use with demonstrated efficacy in a subset of recurrent or refractory cancers of varying tissue histories that are otherwise incurable. The contribution of Drs. Allison and Honjo ushered in a new era of immuno-oncology therapy and helped to establish a new pillar for cancer treatment beyond the existing pillars of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. During the symposium we will discuss pertinent discoveries by Drs. Allison and Honjo within the historical context of basic and tumor immunological discoveries, as well as ongoing clinical development in immuno-oncology and future research directions.


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