National Academy of Sciences awards Kovalenko medal to immunotherapy pioneer Allison

Cancer immunotherapy innovator Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, will receive the 2018 Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal for outstanding research in medical sciences, the National Academy of Sciences announced today.

“Allison’s pioneering research has had a vast impact on cancer therapy and the evolution of the entire field of cancer immunology,” the NAS noted. “His work advanced science while improving the health and well-being of cancer patients worldwide, a process that continues to this day.”

His basic research on the mechanisms of immune response led Allison to invent immune checkpoint blockade as a cancer therapy. This approach treats the immune system and frees it to attack the tumor by blocking a brake on immune response, rather than by targeting the cancer directly.

“This richly deserved recognition of Jim Allison by the National Academy of Sciences highlights the importance of basic science research in the improvement of cancer treatment,” said Peter WT Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “Dr. Allison’s research insights and his drive to see them translated into a new therapeutic approach for patients inform our immunotherapy efforts. We are proud to have him as a leader and colleague at MD Anderson.”

Allison will receive the Kovalenko medal, which is awarded every two years, during the 155th NAS Annual Meeting on April 29. The honor comes with a $25,000 prize and a $50,000 grant to support Allison’s research.

Ignition switch, gas pedal, brakes

The NAS announcement notes Allison’s pivotal discovery of the protein structure of the T cell receptor, the “ignition switch” on the white blood cells that act as the immune system’s targeted warriors. This finding in 1983 while a young investigator at MD Anderson led to subsequent discoveries, including the function of CD28 on T cells, which Allison describes as the “gas pedal” that accelerates immune attack.

He subsequently showed that blocking CTLA-4, another molecule on T cells that acts as a brake on immune response, led to tumor immunity in mice.

Allison then worked for years with pharmaceutical companies to get this new form of treatment to people, culminating in the approval of ipilimumab (known commercially as Yervoy) to treat stage 4 melanoma in 2011.  Ipilimumab was the first drug ever shown to extend survival in these patients.

Other checkpoints have subsequently been identified, with additional checkpoint inhibitors approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat a variety of cancers.

Allison’s research continues to focus on the basic science of the immune system, as well as on efficient ways to combine checkpoint blockade therapy with other drugs to extend the impact of immunotherapy for cancer patients.

He is executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform for MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program™, a focused effort to more rapidly develop ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer, based on scientific discoveries.  Allison also is co-director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at MD Anderson with Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Genitourinary Medical Oncology and Immunology.