Attending the Nobel Prize Ceremony
By: Kerri Kaplan, President & CEO
What a thrill to learn last fall that Drs. James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their pre-eminent work in cancer immunology. It was a privilege to attend this iconic event and represent the Lustgarten Foundation.
Cancer immunology has been a game changer for some patients including Lustgarten Foundation Corporate Advisory Board Honorary Chairperson Former President Jimmy Carter (and winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize). Several years ago, metastatic melanoma like President Carter’s would have been untreatable. President Carter, who was diagnosed more than three years ago, benefitted from a relatively new approach at the time that combined immunotherapy and radiation. Three months after receiving this treatment combination , he found out that his tumors were gone.
Dr. Honjo’s discovery of PD-1 paved the way for utilizing this protein as a target in the treatment of patients. Results have been dramatic in patients like President Carter, leading to long-term remission and possible cures in several patients with metastatic cancer, which had previously been considered untreatable.
In an unprecedented, fast-tracked review in 2017, the FDA approved Keytruda® (pembrolizumab) as the first PD-1 blockade immunotherapy treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer patients whose tumors have a unique genetic mutation called mismatch repair deficiency. It is estimated that approximately 1 in 50 advanced pancreatic cancer patients has tumors that are mismatch repair deficient, making them candidates for this type of therapy. These patients, whose tumors were not responding to standard of care therapies, have reported significant responses to Keytruda®. The Lustgarten Foundation played a critical role in bringing this new treatment to patients by helping to fund the research, encouraging patients to get tested, and funding patients’ testing to determine if their tumors are mismatch repair deficient.
My colleague and good friend, Dr. Sung Poblete, CEO of Stand Up To Cancer, invited me to join her at the Nobel ceremonies. I proudly represented the Lustgarten Foundation in honoring this year’s Nobel Laureates who have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy. I was mesmerized by the pomp and circumstance of this momentous event. The Nobel Laureates took center stage at the Stockholm Concert Hall on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, to receive the Nobel Medal and Diploma from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. All the guests were dressed in white tuxedos or gowns.
The formal announcement went as follows:
Professors Allison and Honjo – Your groundbreaking research has added a fourth pillar in cancer therapy. It represents a new paradigm for treatment, not directly targeting the cancer cells but rather releasing the breaks of the immune system Your seminal discoveries constitute a landmark in the fight against cancer for the benefit of numerous patients and all humankind. Our warmest congratulations. Please step forward to receive the Nobel Prize from the hands of his Majesty the King.
The trumpets sounded and the audience was moved to tears as the professors were honored for their profound accomplishment that is changing the course of cancer treatment. The night continued with a banquet and further celebration until the wee hours of the morning.
The following day, Dr. Allison and his wife, Dr. Padmanee Sharma, also a world renowned immunologist, hosted a brunch for their invited guests – a group of more than 100 people which included colleagues, members of pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and funding organizations. Dr. Allison acknowledged that it was only fitting that the large team of people who played a role in bringing the breakthrough to patients share the honor with him.
It was especially meaningful to have Sharon Belven with us. Belven, one of the first patients treated with immune checkpoint therapy, was diagnosed with advanced melanoma in 2005 when she was only 22-years-old. Thirteen years later she traveled to Stockholm with her fiancé to see Dr. Allison be presented his Nobel Prize.
Also in attendance were several other eminent immunologists who have been funded jointly by the Lustgarten Foundation and Stand Up To Cancer, including Drs. Philip Greenberg, Patrick Hwu, Elizabeth Jaffee, Robert Schreiber and Jedd Wolchok.
For more than 100 years scientists have attempted to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer. Until the seminal discoveries by these two Nobel Laureates, progress into clinical development was modest. Checkpoint therapy has now revolutionized cancer treatment and has fundamentally changed the way we view how cancer can be managed. The Lustgarten Foundation is proud to be investing millions of dollars into this promising area of research.