MD Anderson’s Freireich, Allison elected fellows of the AACR Academy

Elite recognition for life-saving innovations of drug combinations, immunotherapy for cancer

MD Anderson News Release 04/02/14

A physician who pioneered the use of drug combinations to treat cancer – reversing the bleak survival prospects of children with leukemia -- and a basic scientist who found a new way to treat cancer with the immune system have been elected fellows of the American Association for Cancer Research Academy.

AACR, the world’s premier organization for cancer research, established the AACR Academy in 2013 to recognize distinguished scientists whose major scientific contributions have driven significant innovation and progress against cancer.

Two members of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center faculty will be inducted Friday at the AACR Annual Meeting 2014 in San Diego.

Emil J Freireich, M.D., holds the Ruth Harriet Ainsworth Research Chair in Developmental Therapeutics, and is distinguished teaching professor, director of the Adult Leukemia Research Program, and director of the Special Medical Education Programs at MD Anderson.

At the National Cancer Institute in the late 1950s, Freireich treated childhood leukemia, which was then always lethal, with combinations of cancer drugs, a revolutionary approach that led to today’s 85 percent survival rate. He also was the first to separate platelets from donated blood, allowing direct treatment of young patients who often bled to death due to low platelet counts caused by their leukemia. Freireich moved to MD Anderson in the 1960s, where he refined combination treatment and extended it to adult patients. Freireich also has mentored generations of oncologists, including many faculty leaders at MD Anderson.

Jim Allison, Ph.D., is chairman of Immunology, executive director of MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform, deputy director of the David H Koch Center for Applied Research of Genitourinary Cancers and holds the Vivian L. Smith Distinguished Chair in Immunology.

Allison’s seminal basic science discoveries about the biology of T cells, first at MD Anderson, then at the University of California, Berkeley, led to the development of immune checkpoint blockade, an entirely new approach for treating cancer.  Allison showed that the CTLA-4 molecule on T cells turns off immune response. He developed an antibody that unleashes T cell attack on cancer  by blocking this immune checkpoint that went on to become the first drug to ever extend the survival of patients with stage 4 melanoma.  Since the drug treats the immune system rather than the tumor directly, it’s being applied to all types of cancer.

“Dr. Freireich’s fierce dedication to patients inspired bold innovations in clinical care that have saved the lives of countless men, women and children,” said Ethan Dmitrovsky, M.D., MD Anderson provost and executive vice president. “Dr. Allison’s passion for discovery illuminated the biology of T cells in the finest tradition of basic science research, leading to an entirely new approach to treating cancer. We’re proud that they’ve been recognized by their peers with election to the AACR Academy.”

The AACR Academy is an entity within the AACR that recognizes those individuals who have made exceptional contributions to cancer research and/or cancer-related biomedical science. Only scientists whose work has had a major impact on the field are eligible for election as a fellow.

“Our 2014 class of fellows includes a number of the most prestigious laboratory researchers and physician-scientists who have contributed enormously to the cancer field. We look forward to celebrating their fundamental discoveries and contributions at this year’s annual meeting,” said Margaret Foti, Ph.D., M.D. (h.c.), chief executive officer of the AACR.

The class of 2014 includes 38 scientists and physicians from 26 institutions in seven countries.  Academy members will meet Saturday and then receive special during the opening plenary session of the annual meeting on Sunday morning, April 6.