After pondering what career to pursue - diplomat, lawyer or doctor - Honjo entered the Faculty of Medicine at Kyoto University in 1960 and moved on to the graduate course. About the same time, 5:30 a.m.in New York, Allison received a call from his son delivering the news before Nobel officials.
It found that the drug Keytruda (pembrolizumab) - which famously helped former United States president Jimmy Carter stave off advanced melanoma that had spread to his brain - helped lung cancer patients live four to eight months longer than chemo.
He was diagnosed in 2015 with the skin cancer melanoma, which had spread to his brain. By releasing that brake, Honjo's research had found a "strikingly effective" treatment against cancer.
News that Honjo became the 26th Japanese Nobel Prize victor was met with a shower of praise from cancer patient groups and the Japanese government on Monday.
Dr Smith, 77, was a professor for 40 years at the University of Missouri at the Division of Biological Sciences. It's been the most successful attempt yet to rid cancer patients of life-threatening tumours and, ultimately, the disease itself.
During the news conference, Honjo thanked those who have worked with him on research, his students and his family.
The prize recognizes Allison's basic science discoveries on the biology of T cells, the adaptive immune system's soldiers, and his invention of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer. Since 2012 he has been professor at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas and is affiliated with the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Expectations are high for further research and development of anti-cancer therapies as the disease continues to be a serious health threat.
"I was able to prove that it is not rare for fundamental research to lead to applications", Honjo, 76, said at a news conference held at Kyoto University, where he is now a professor.
Honjo and Allison together were conferred the 2014 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science for the same achievement. Research by Allison at the University of Texas in the U.S. and Honjo at Japan's Kyoto University explored how the body's immune system can be harnessed to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells. Once these brakes were identified, researchers were able to work on how to turn them off and get T-cells (or white blood cells) to start attacking cancerous tumors.
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The Nobel Committee members said they are hopeful that combinations of these drugs and other therapies will allow more cancer patients to benefit with fewer side effects.
The American and Japanese researchers discovered methods of removing the brakes on cells that fight invaders, paving the way for cancer immunotherapy, which has joined surgery, radiation and chemotherapy as a major weapon in the battle against cancer.
Prior to the discoveries made by this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology winners, progress into clinical development of new cancer treatments was slow.
Speaking to NPR in 2016, Allison said in his experiments on mice with cancer, he tinkered with one key molecule on the outside of T cells in the rodent's immune system.
He realized the potential of releasing the brake and unleashing immune cells to attack tumors.
The anti-PD-1 "checkpoint inhibitors" have proved even more effective than anti-CTLA-4 treatment, giving hope to patients with lung cancer, renal cancer, lymphoma, and melanoma, among others.
Honjo, also an immunologist, discovered a second receptor called PD-1 that also acted as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action.
Using the power of the immune system to fight off cancer actually goes back to the late 19th century.
The 9 million-kronor ($1.01 million) prize was announced Monday by the Nobel Assembly of Sweden's Karolinska Institute.