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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Nobel Prize in Medicine for Immunotherapy Could Help Dogs With Cancer

Updated: May 15th, 2024


The 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to immunotherapy researchers — and what they found could help dogs with cancer.

Nobel Prize in Medicine

James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo, 2018 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine. Ilustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2018

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine was jointly awarded last week to James P. Allison, Ph.D., of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and Dr. Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University in Japan. They won this prestigious award – technically called the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – for their groundbreaking work on immune suppression.

Basically, they have established the scientific foundation to justify a way to treat cancer: by stimulating the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.

Their discoveries have already led to human immunotherapies, which means that we will eventually have those pharmaceutical therapies available for dogs, as well.

So, let’s take a look at their important work, and see how what they’ve uncovered can help your dog, now. After all, with dog cancer affecting almost half the dogs over 10, doing a better job in treatment is a big deal, and is why I write about cutting-edge treatments like immune boosters in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.

Immune Cell “Brakes”

Separately, Dr. Allison and Dr. Honju were both researching something called “immune checkpoints”. To put their research most simply, they have discovered how to “brake” cancer using the immune system checkpoints they’ve been working with. Let me explain a little.

Most functions in the body have controls that turn them “on” and controls that turn them “off.”

You can think of a car’s gas and brake pedals. The gas is the “on” control,” and the brake pedal is the “off” control.

The immune system is also turned on and off using little proteins on the immune system’s cells. These are the proteins that the doctors studied. They’re the “regulators” of the immune system. If they’re not working, the system isn’t working.

By understanding how these proteins work, they have really helped to establish that the immune system CAN be used to fight cancer.

The immune system CAN be used to fight cancer.

Reminder: How the Immune System Works

Understanding how the immune system works, and what starts and stops it, is very powerful information, both for understanding why these researchers won, and for understanding Step Three of my Full Spectrum Cancer Care approach. So let’s look at the immune system very briefly.

Basic Immune Function

There are two basic things a healthy immune system does for us:

  1. It fights invading forces like bacteria and viruses and parasites. It figures out whether something is “me” or “not me.” If it’s “not me,” it kills it.
  2. It searches for and destroys developing cancer cells. These cells are technically “me,” but there is something really wrong with them. If that’s the case, the immune system kills the cell.

It’s really important that the immune system is correct in identifying problems.

  • We like it when the immune system correctly recognizes and kills invaders — a cold virus, for example — before they multiply. But if the system is “on” too much, it can misidentify healthy cells for a virus or other external invader. When that happens, the immune system attacks healthy cells, destroying regular tissues as if they were foreign invaders. This is the problem at the heart of all autoimmune disorders.
  • We also like it when the immune system sees developing cancer cells and kills them off before they become big problems. But if the immune system ignores or can’t identify early tumor cells, cancer has a chance to establish itself, grow and develop. This is one of the events that must happen in order for cancer to occur. Like a lack of normal apoptosis, immune suppression is a hallmark of ALL cancer types.

Immune System “Talking”

The immune system cells need to be able to talk with each other and with the rest of the body’s cells, so there has to be a communication system in place. And there is.

The way cells “hear” each other is by signaling. The signals are actually little chemical molecules that go between the cells.

For each signaling molecule, there is a corresponding receptor. Those receptors are on the surfaces of cells.

When a cell’s signaling molecule is received by another cell, they are in communication. What happens is this:

  • Cells “talk” by sending out signaling molecules.
  • The signaling molecules drift around to other cells.
  • If there is a receptor on the surface of a cell that fits that molecule, the molecule enters the receptor, like a key going into a lock.
  • The cell “hears” what the first cell “said.”

This communication system is always working in a healthy immune system.  It’s how the immune system mobilizes to fight infection or destroy cancer cells.

And when the job is done, the immune response should be stopped. Just like the immune system needed to send an “on” communication, it also needs an “off” signal to STOP working when it’s time. That’s where Drs. Allison and Honju did much of their work, in these regulating immune checkpoints.

Cancer Evades Immune Surveillance

Keep in mind that the immune system is always patrolling for cancer cells, because bodies (dogs and humans) can have cancerous cells happen at any time, just as a part of normal life. When cells divide, for example, they can make a mistake and cause a mutated cell. Technically, that’s cancer, even though it might never get large enough to cause symptoms.

That’s because these super-tiny cells are almost always caught by the body naturally and destroyed before they ever get a chance to develop fully. There are a few ways this can happen, including the new cell’s own apoptosis genes recognizing the mutation and committing natural cell suicide.

Or, the immune system’s cells find the cancer cell and kill it.

But even though the immune system patrols continually for cancer cells, every once in a while, a developing cancer cell escapes detection. These rare, developing cancer cells appear invisible to the continual immune surveillance. Why?


  • Some of these cancer cells look a lot like young normal body cells. The immune system can’t tell that they are not a normal part of the body.
  • Or, the immune system just does not “see” them. The cells should stand out as abnormal, but they don’t.

This immune surveillance escape is one of the events that occurs prior to full-fledged cancer in dogs and people. And remember, because dogs are so similar to us when it comes to cancer, what works for us often helps them – and vice versa!

What the Nobel Prize in Medicine Researchers Discovered

Now that we’ve grounded ourselves in the immune system and how it is involved in cancer, let’s look a little more closely at the immune checkpoint research that garnered a Nobel Prize for Dr. Allison and Dr. Honjo.

In short, these two researchers (working independently, by the way) discovered the signals and receptors, the communication “checkpoints,” that are used to turn off an immune system cell.

Specifically, they discovered how CANCER turns OFF immune cells using these checkpoints.

Even more specifically, they discovered how cancer turns off the specific immune cells, T cells, that are involved in removing cancer from the body!

Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how diabolical a foe cancer is:

  • It can evade immune surveillance, as we talked about above. It can be “invisible” to our immune cells.
  • As if that isn’t enough, it can also turn off the T cells, the very immune cells that could destroy cancer cells. It renders these cells obsolete!

Now THAT is crazy. It’s like a forest fire that reaches out and burns up firefighter hoses.

If cancer were a character in a superhero movie, it would be a villain who could go invisible AND remove all the ammo from the guns of the good guys.

In their work, Drs. Allison and Honju have explained in detail what proteins and receptors are involved in the “disarming” of the T cells. And that’s a good thing.

How This Understanding Helps Us Treat Dog Cancer

Now that we understand more about HOW cancer works to disarm the immune system, we can use that knowledge to design medications and other therapies that prevent the cancer cells from turning off the immune system T cells. And that’s what researchers have been doing, based on this work.

These new approaches are designed to reactivate the normal immune response to cancer cells, which will hopefully enable those immune cells to do what comes naturally: kill and clear those cancer cells from the body.

These new approaches are designed to reactivate the normal immune response to cancer cells, which will hopefully enable those immune cells to do what comes naturally: kill and clear those cancer cells from the body.

Several human drugs have already been designed using this research. Because the science is still early, they can have pretty bad side effects in some people. And we don’t have these cancer medications for dogs yet.

So … how do we use this understanding to help boost the immune systems in our dogs with cancer?

We turn to Step Three of Full Spectrum Cancer Care, which dogs around the globe have been using for years to fight cancer.

Immune Boosters for Dogs with Cancer You Can Use Now

We do have science-backed ways of providing immune support for dogs, as I have written about many times before, and to which I dedicate a whole chapter in my book.

One of the most encouraging and useful methods I’ve used over the years and still recommend is the use of beta-glucan supplements.

Beta-glucans of the kind we are interested in are usually extracted from specific mushrooms: Shitake, Maitake, Reishi, Lions Mane, Cordyceps, Turkey Tail, and others. If you would like to read more science on beta-glucans, check this out, and this, and this, and this.

Most of these medicinal mushrooms have been used for thousands of years, especially in China. As a matter of fact, injectable beta-glucan products are considered standard of care in China, in the same way that chemotherapy drugs are here in the West. The most popular injectable therapies include the extracts PSP and PSK derived from Coriolus versicolor (Turkey Tail) mushroom. These sterile injectable therapies are difficult if not impossible to get in the USA.

However, the good news is that there are forms available that can be given by mouth, at home. They are safe, bioavailable, definitely help the immune response, and sold in many places.

I included some beta-glucans in the formula for Apocaps. However, when I treat dog cancer cases in my practice, I like to really boost immunity with a separate beta-glucan supplement, as well. I prescribe all of these in real life veterinary medicine.

Bottom Line: Use Full Spectrum Cancer Care

My advice has always been to attack cancer on ALL fronts that it attacks the body, not just one or two. That’s why I call it Full Spectrum Cancer Care: because we use the full spectrum of strategies available, no matter where they come from.

In this article, we are talking mostly about immunity, which falls under step three in the list below. But all the steps are also important:

  • Step One: conventional approaches like surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy
  • Step Two: Nutraceuticals to support normal apoptosis
  • Step Three:  Immune Boosters and Anti-Metastatics
  • Step Four: Diet
  • Step Five: Brain Chemistry Modification

There is no doubt in my mind that we get the best outcome by using ALL the tools available. Asking your veterinarian about the use of a high-quality beta-glucan supplement in addition to other steps you are taking is definitely a worthwhile idea.


Dr. D

Leave a Comment

  1. Letty on April 20, 2023 at 11:16 am

    I need help with my fur baby Zeus he has MCT again on his leg. He already had surgery to remove a large one about 7 mths ago and now the MCT are coming back in multiples. I have been trying to do all the recommendations of raw food, veggies, fruits, mushrooms and CBD, but I sold my lifelong home Feb 1st and I could not do the raw food for about 2 mths cuz I had to stay with my sons family and his wife is very selfish and heartless. How can I ever live with myself after getting him back to great health and now hes worse than before the surgery. Its all my fault this happening!! Please advise what I can do to save my boy?? I wish I could talk to you somehow.

  2. Jon Davidson on November 4, 2021 at 5:50 am

    Our 11 year Doberman had a Mast Cell Tumor removed from her back that was Stage 3. I bought your Dog Cancer Survival Guide and am using it to prepare her meals and have ordered the supplements you recommended; I have been using a number of them for years. Have you had any experience with LDN ( Low dose Naltrexone)? It has been used very successfully in human cancers with minimal side effects but I can’t find much about dogs. Thanks Jon Davidson

    • Molly Jacobson on November 5, 2021 at 10:36 am

      Hello Jon. I believe that Dr. D does use LDN in some cases, however, I don’t have detail to share. If you would like to reach out to him directly, he’s available for consults at his veterinary hospital, South Shore Veterinary Care:

  3. Dr. Martin J. Zizi on July 28, 2019 at 6:12 pm

    Powerful info. Can you recommend some good source of beta glucan. Vendors that you think are legitimate.

  4. Carleen on October 9, 2018 at 3:52 am

    How would this research relate to t-cell infusion for various forms of cancer, such as lymphoma? It seems like it would be supportive of it? My dog had autologous adoptive t-cell infusion and is now at over 3 years remission. Several autologous adoptive T cell infusion and Car-T infusion studies are currently ongoing. I’m curious about your opinion of those. Car-T carries greater risk, while adoptive T has generally had few side effects.

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