The discovery made by the two laureates "constitutes a landmark in our fight against cancer", the committee tweeted shortly after the announcement. Up until then, the standard arsenal consisted of surgery to remove the tumor and radiation and chemotherapy to poison the cancer. In 2011, Bristol-Myers Squibb's antibody drug Yervoy (ipilimumab) was approved as the first immune-activating cancer drug.
"Therapies based on his [Honjo's] discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer", the Nobel committee said.
Honjo, who became a Kyoto University professor emeritus in 2005, is the fifth Japanese victor of a Nobel medicine prize.
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As The Guardian explains, the human immune system "normally seeks out and destroys mutated cells, but cancer finds sophisticated ways to hide from immune attacks", in part by "ramping up braking mechanisms created to prevent immune cells from attacking normal tissue".
Allison also said he was "honored and humbled" by the award.
"That's the mission for a country, but Japan lags behind (other countries)", said the deputy director-general of the university's Institute for Advanced Study, who shared the prize on Monday with American scientist James Allison. In his words, "an untold number of lives. have been saved by the science" the two men discovered and developed.
Allison went into cancer research because he always wanted to be the first person to figure something out. They have come up with a unique cancer drug which strengthens the patient's own immune system to fight against the fatal disease. "They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work". A year later, he announced he no longer needed treatment.
Professor Allison works at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.
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In a series of experiments, Honjo showed that PD-1 also works as a T-cell brake, but operates in a different way.
Charles Swanton, chief clinician at the charity Cancer Research UK, said the scientists' work had revolutionized cancer and immunotherapy.
Allison heard the news of his Nobel prize win while at an immunology conference in New York City, reports Ledford and Else.
The discoveries led to greatly improved therapies for skin cancer, as well as cancers of the lung, head, neck, kidney and liver.
The winners of this year's physics prize will be announced on Tuesday, followed by the chemistry prize on Wednesday.
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Meanwhile, the fact that the literature prize will not be handed over this year has grabbed several headlines.