The announcement that the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded to two cancer immunotherapy researchers is a significant acknowledgement of the effect of immunotherapy and the work that has been done by the Providence team lead by Walter J. Urba, M.D., Ph.D., director of Earle A. Chiles Research Institute and Robert W. Franz Cancer Center for the last two decades.
The Nobel went to James P. Allison, Ph. D., of the United States and Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., of Japan for their research identifying methods by which the immune system can be used to fight cancer – helping the body to heal itself. This research has led to a new class of drugs used in the cancer battle. Those drugs have given some patients with only months to live, years of new life.
Providence Cancer Institute’s Dr. Urba and colleagues were on the front line of testing the first of those drugs in clinical trials. Dr. Urba was the senior author and principal investigator of the international clinical trial that led to the FDA approval of the drug, ipilimumab, developed according to Allison’s ideas.
“Providence started testing that immunotherapy drug in patients in 2004, it was approved for use by the FDA in 2011,” said Dr. Urba. “In 2004 we treated patients diagnosed with a disease with a life expectancy of one year in that clinical trial – and some of them are still alive today.”
As principal investigator, Dr. Urba worked with the sponsor to make a host of decisions about the clinical trial: how the drug would be dosed and how it would be given; where the clinical trials would be located around the world, and how patients at those sites would be treated and their side effects managed.
“What I would say to our patients: Thank you for participating. Without you, we would never have known if this drug works,” said Dr. Urba. “We are now able to help a lot of patients we could not help before.”
The early successes in immunotherapy have energized the field of research, with new combinations of immunotherapy drugs being tested on a variety of tumor types. Dr. Urba says the Nobel not only honors Allison and Honjo, it also recognizes the growing significance of immunotherapy research and treatment for patients with cancer.
What I would say to our patients: Thank you for participating. Without you, we would never have known if this drug works.