James P. Allison: Truly implicated to defeat cancer

On Oct. 1, 2018, Dr. Jim Allison, chair of Immunology and executive director of the immunotherapy platform at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, was jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his groundbreaking immunotherapy research. This cutting-edge cancer treatment trains the immune system to attack cancer, rather than treating the cancer directly.

“By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy,” the Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm noted in announcing the award to Allison and Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., of Kyoto University in Japan.

“I’m honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition,” Allison said. “A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. I didn’t set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells – these incredible cells travel to our bodies and work to protect us.”

Allison started his career at MD Anderson in 1977, arriving as one of the first employees of a new basic science research center located in Smithville, Texas. He was recruited back to MD Anderson in November 2012 to lead the Immunology Department and to establish an immunotherapy research platform for MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program.

“Jim Allison’s accomplishments on behalf of patients cannot be overstated,” said MD Anderson President Peter WT Pisters, M.D. “His research has led to life-saving treatments for people who otherwise would have little hope. The significance of immunotherapy as a form of cancer treatment will be felt for generations to come.”

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.

Allison’s crucial insight was to block a protein on T cells that acts as a brake on their activation, freeing the T cells to attack cancer. He developed an antibody to block the checkpoint protein CTLA-4 and demonstrated the success of the approach in experimental models. His work led to development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug. Ipilimumab was approved for late-stage melanoma by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011.

His drug, known commercially as Yervoy, became the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma. Follow-up studies show 20 percent of those treated live for at least three years with many living for 10 years and beyond, unprecedented results. Subsequent research has extended this approach to new immune regulatory targets, most prominently PD-1 and PD-L1, with drugs approved to treat certain types and stages of melanoma, lung, kidney, bladder, gastric, liver, cervical, colorectal, and head and neck cancers and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Clinical trials are underway in many other cancer types.

“I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has,” Allison said. “It’s a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who’ve been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade. They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work.”