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Honorable Mentions

The scientists who helped build the basis for immunotherapy

Three Boston-area cancer researchers drew attention this year for missing their moment to win a Nobel Prize. But they say the work itself is their reward.

Gordon Freeman, Arlene Sharpe, and F. Stephen Hodi.
Gordon Freeman, Arlene Sharpe, and F. Stephen Hodi. (Illustrations by Sabrina Smelko for the Boston Globe)

Scientific researchers almost always remain unsung, but three Boston-area medical researchers drew attention this year for missing their moment in the spotlight. Gordon Freeman, Arlene Sharpe, and F. Stephen Hodi helped solve a longstanding medical puzzle: Why is the immune system — the body’s biological army — so incompetent when it comes to cancer? Their work became part of the basis for immunotherapy, a major breakthrough in the fight against cancer. But when the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2018 was awarded for work that helped propel the field, the winners did not include Freeman, Sharpe, or Hodi.

Freeman, an immunologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, discovered back in 1989 that a molecule called B7 helps activate T cells, our immunological soldiers. He then joined with Sharpe, an immunologist at Harvard Medical School whose lab is a couple of blocks from his, to help uncover how tumor cells shut down T cells. They were among the first scientists to figure out a molecular trick that foiled the tumor cells — an immunotherapy now known as a checkpoint inhibitor.

Hodi, who directs the Center for Immuno-Oncology at Dana-Farber, ran one of the first successful clinical trials of a drug based on their checkpoint inhibitor research. Clinicians such as Hodi are seldom recognized by the Nobel committee. But overlooking Freeman’s and Sharpe’s contributions is harder to explain. The pair’s work has resulted in multiple awards, and Freeman had collaborated with one of the Nobel winners. The Nobel committee, however, honors no more than three individuals per category. And it didn’t pick them.

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When the award was announced, Freeman told a publication he was disappointed. Now, he is sanguine, citing the contributions of many other researchers. He’ll carry on with what he jokingly calls the family business (he and Sharpe are married). Their work saves lives, and that’s the best reward of all.

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Jessie Scanlon is a writer in Cambridge. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.