Two scientists, who initially discovered how to harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer, have been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet.

The groundbreaking work of Professor James Allison, of the US, and Professor Tasuku Honjo, of Japan, has paved the way for a new class of cancer drugs that are already dramatically changing outcomes for patients across multiple indications.

Normally the immune system seeks out and destroys mutated cells, however cancer cells find sophisticated ways of hiding from immune attacks. One way to initiate an immune response is to ramp up braking mechanisms designed to prevent immune cells from attacking normal tissue. In the 1990s, Allison discovered the first of these built-in brakes, known as checkpoints. Allison showed that switching off the brakes could produce remarkable results in treating mice with cancer. Independently, in 1992, Honjo discovered a second checkpoint that worked through a different mechanism, with treatments based on this work producing dramatic improvements to patient outcomes in the clinic.

This is a seminal day for those working in the field of immuno-oncology, including those at Calculus’ portfolio companies Oxford BioTherapeutics (OBT) and Scancell, as it is the first time that the development of cancer therapy has been recognised with a Nobel Prize.

OBT, a recent investment for Calculus, has a strong pipeline of clinical and pre-clinical immunotherapies across several indications, which are supported by multiple development deals, including a collaboration agreement with Italy’s largest pharmaceutical company, The Menarini Group, as well as German pharmaceutical group Boehringer Ingelheim.

Similarly, Scancell is developing novel immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer based on its ImmunoBody® and Moditope® technology platforms. The first vaccine, SCIB1, is being developed for the treatment of late stage melanoma, with the second, SCIB2, for the treatment of solid tumours, initially targeting non-small cell lung cancer.