This year's Sjöberg Prize in cancer research of one million dollars is awarded to professor Kevan Shokat, University of California, USA. Ten years ago, he became the first person to succeed in blocking one of the mutated proteins that cause most cancer cases. This is a huge scientific breakthrough that is bringing hope to people who are critically ill with lung cancer.
It has long been known that mutations in specific genes cause cancer. The most common of these oncogenes is a family that consists of the three Ras genes. Overall, it is thought that 20 per cent of all cancers are caused by RAS mutations, including 30 per cent of all lung cancer and 80 per cent of all pancreatic cancer.
For almost 40 years, researchers have tried to develop pharmaceuticals that can block the function of mutated Ras proteins, but this has proven very difficult and was previously regarded as, in principle, impossible.
There was therefore a great deal of attention when, in 2013, Kevan Shokat succeeded in developing the first inhibitor for a mutated Ras protein, K-Ras (G12C). He constructed a molecule that attached to the protein and locks it in an inactive state. This means that cell division ceases and the tumour stops growing.
This mutation causes a difficult-to-treat form of lung cancer that is particularly common among heavy smokers. The first pharmaceutical for lung cancer based on Shokat's discovery was approved in the US in 2021. Compared to other treatments, it has been shown to lead to both an improved quality of life and a longer life expectancy by a month on average.
Like other cancer medications, not every patient responds to the treatment and there are signs that tumours may become drug resistant. However, intensive development work is continuing to further improve this first-generation pharmaceutical.
"The start of a new era"
This is the start of an entirely new era, in which we will build upon this initial discovery. It has already been of great importance to people with lung cancer and, in the future, it may be of great importance for other patient groups whose cancer is caused by mutated Ras proteins."
Urban Lendahl, professor of genetics at Karolinska Institutet and member of the Prize Committee
Kevan Shokat is delighted to have been awarded the Sjöberg Prize, for which the majority of the prize money, 900,000 US dollars, forms a grant to fund continued research.
"The way the award is structured provides a substantial amount for research. This is the biggest grant I've ever seen, so it's going to make a big difference to our research. I really appreciate how it was put together", he says in a comment.