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Nobel Prizes and the Promise of Science

Celebrating this year’s winners and our company’s namesake.

Combined photo of Emil von Behring and his 1901 Nobel Prize for medicine.
Emil von Behring (left) and his 1901 Nobel Prize, the first ever given for medicine.

The work done by those who receive Nobel Prizes in science gives us a dazzling glimpse at how researchers make key discoveries, often painstakingly and over many years.

This year’s winners in medicine, James P. Allison of the United States and Tasuku Honjo of Japan, share the Nobel Prize for their work to establish that the body’s own immune system can be used as a weapon to fight cancer.

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Allison is chairman of immunology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Honjo is a professor at the University of Kyoto. Both spent decades studying different proteins that act as brakes on the immune system. By releasing the brakes, they found that immune system cells could be unleashed on cancerous tumors, according to the Nobel Assembly that awards the prizes.

“The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer,” the Nobel Assembly said.

It’s hard to imagine a time when the Nobel Prizes were new, but that was the case in 1901, when Emil von Behring won the first prize awarded for medicine. The committee selected Behring, of the University of Marburg in Germany, for his work in serum therapy to immunize people against diphtheria, a potentially fatal bacterial infection.

Emil von Behring's office

Emil von Behring's office.

Media coverage for the inaugural Nobel Prizes was light in 1901, Behring biographer Derek S. Linton wrote in his 2005 book. But Behring had already earned international fame among medical experts – some of whom nominated him for the Nobel Prize. Nonscientists – especially people whose children benefited from Behring’s discoveries - also sought Behring out.

“Behring was inundated with letters of gratitude from parents of children rescued from death by serum therapy,” Linton wrote.

As they were in 1901, the ceremony to award the 2018 Nobel Prizes will be held December 10th in Stockholm, Sweden.