Immunotherapy innovator wins 2014 Canada Gairdner International Award

MD Anderson’s Allison honored; “Many cancer patients are alive today because of his vision”

MD Anderson News Release 03/28/14

A Canadian institution that annually recognizes seminal medical discoveries selected cancer immunotherapy leader Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair and professor of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, for one of its 2014 Canada Gairdner International Awards.

The honor, announced this week by the Gairdner Foundation, lauds Allison’s research in T cell biology that led to his discovery of a unique treatment that frees the immune system to attack cancer. 

“Allison’s concept has opened a new field of cancer therapy, immune checkpoint blockade, and many cancer patients are alive today because of his vision,” the foundation noted in its announcement.

Allison discovered that a molecule on T cells turns off an immune attack on cancer before those white blood cells, primed to kill the tumor, can complete their work.  He created an antibody to block this off switch and prolong immune response that became the first drug to increase survival of people with late-stage melanoma.

The drug ipilimumab, known as Yervoy®, was approved by federal regulators for patients with metastatic or surgically unremovable melanoma in 2011.  Twenty-two percent of such patients who got the drug in clinical trials remain alive for three years or longer, unprecedented results for the disease at that stage.

“By creating this brilliant approach that treats the immune system rather than the tumor, Jim Allison opened a completely new avenue for treating all cancers that’s the most exciting and promising area of cancer research today,” said MD Anderson President Ron DePinho, M.D.

“The potential of cancer immunotherapy is just beginning to be realized, and Jim is working to expand and hone this approach as executive director of MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform,” DePinho said.

“Recognition by the Gairdner Foundation is gratifying for any scientist,” Allison said. “It’s also a boost for the field of immunotherapy as we continue to develop new drugs and combinations that will more effectively unleash the immune system on cancer.”

Ignition switch, gas pedal, brakes for immune response

His major T cell discoveries began during Allison’s first stay at MD Anderson in the 1980s, when he identified the antigen receptor on the surface of T cells that acts as an ignition switch, turning on an immune response when it comes into contact with an antigen from a virus, bacterium or abnormal cell.

At the University of California, Allison identified a second molecule on the surface of T cells called CD28 that acts as a gas pedal, accelerating immune response. He also established that the molecule CTLA-4 on the T cell surface acts as a brake, shutting down immune response. He developed an antibody to block CTLA-4, which was subsequently developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb into Yervoy.

Since then, more immune checkpoints have been identified and drugs to target them are in development.

Allison was recruited to MD Anderson in 2012 from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to build an immunotherapy platform – infrastructure, technology or expertise – to support translational and clinical cancer research at MD Anderson. The platform also supports MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program, an ambitious effort to dramatically reduce cancer deaths, starting with six moon shots that target eight cancers. 

Since December 2013, MD Anderson has signed collaborative agreements with Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and MedImmune to develop immunology-based approaches to cancer treatment.

Allison also is deputy director of the David H Koch Center for Applied Research of Genitourinary Cancers and holds the Vivian L. Smith Distinguished Chair in Immunology at MD Anderson.

Allison and seven other honorees will receive their awards and 100,000 Canadian dollars to support their research in Toronto on Oct. 30. The awards were created in 1959 to recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers whose work significantly improves the quality of human life.

“The Canada Gairdner Awards distinguish Canada as a leader in biomedical research, raising the profile of science both nationally and on the world stage,” said John Dirks, M.D., president and scientific director, Gairdner Foundation, in the award announcement. “This year’s winners are an exceptional example of highly effective outcomes from translational research.”

Last year, Allison received a Breakthrough Prize for Biosciences from the Breakthrough Foundation, The Economist’s 2013 Innovations Award for Bioscience  and the first AACR-CRI Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology of the American Association for Cancer Research. The journal Science named cancer immunotherapy its 2013 Breakthrough of the Year. In February, he was named winner of the 2014 Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research from the National Foundation for Cancer Research.