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Immunology research is a Nobel cause

by Jo Owens | Analysis

5 October 2011

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A dendritic cell

The discovery of dendritic cells has led to a Nobel Prize

It’s October, which means it’s time for the Nobel Prizes – the research equivalent of the Oscars, when the good and the great of scientific endeavour are honoured by the Nobel Foundation.

Two Cancer Research UK-funded scientists – Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Tim Hunt – are among the glittering list of past Nobel laureates, and we’re proud that our support has contributed to the work of several others.

From understanding how viruses can convert normal cells into cancer cells, to landmark discoveries about how cells multiply, their prize-winning work lives on in the progress we’re making against cancer today.

This year, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been jointly awarded to three immunologists – Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffmann and Ralph Steinman. Their discoveries of the key players in our immune system have given us insights that are literally game-changing for the treatment of cancer and other diseases.

We’ve blogged recently about harnessing our immune system to treat cancer. Without these fundamental discoveries by Beutler, Hoffman and Steinman, research like this simply wouldn’t be possible.

‘Innate’ immunity

Beutler and Hoffman worked out how our innate immunity – the defence system we are all born with – senses a foreign ‘intruder’ and kick starts the immune response. This is essentially what happens every time you get an infection, leading to swollen glands and a temperature. But researchers now believe that components of this response also play a role in cancer, and some of our scientists are working out exactly how.

Others are looking at ‘immunosurveillance’ – trying to figure out why our own defence systems can recognise bacteria and viruses, but all too often miss cancer cells. Why does this happen? And can we train our immune system to be better at finding cancer cells?

Cellular sentinels

Research by the third recipient of this year’s Nobel, who sadly passed away just days before the prizes were announced, is key to answering this last question. In 1973, Ralph Steinman discovered ‘dendritic cells’ – cells that act like sentinels, alerting other immune cells to the presence of foreign invaders.

His discovery has laid the foundations for immunotherapy research – especially for potentially treating cancer – because it might be possible to alter these sentinels so that they alert the immune system to the presence of specific diseases that have otherwise escaped their notice.

Our scientists are looking at this right now, building on Steinman’s legacy, with a view to developing a ‘vaccine’ that boost a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Our immune system is amazing, complicated and powerful, and it has taken years of research to even begin to understand the inner workings of this finely tuned biological ‘orchestra’.

So we say thank you to these pioneers of the past, for their contribution towards the immunotherapy of tomorrow.


Dr Jo Owens is a science communications manager at Cancer Research UK

  • You can read more about our immunotherapy research here.