Being right, often enough
The son of a country doctor, Jim Allison grew up in Alice, Texas, apparently destined for medical school.
A lifelong interest in understanding how things work, and observing his father practicing medicine day-in and day-out, led to a decisive conclusion.
“I had a pretty good look at what it’s like to be a physician. As a doctor, you can’t make mistakes, you have to always be right,” Allison says. “Scientists generate and test hypotheses, which are wrong most of the time, otherwise you’re not asking the hard questions. Scientists only need to be right some of the time — preferably about important things.”
He shifted out of pre-med studies at The University of Texas at Austin, took a degree in microbiology and then went on to earn his doctorate in biological sciences in 1973.
Since then, Allison has been right often enough about important things to have a major impact in medical care after all. An impact that has saved the lives of countless cancer patients.
Science career begins – 1977
Completes a postdoctoral fellowship in Molecular Immunology at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, La Jolla, Calif.
Takes first faculty position as assistant professor of Biochemistry at MD Anderson’s Department of Molecular Carcinogenesis and Epigenetics at the Science Park – Research Division in Smithville, Texas.
T cells and the ignition switch – 1977-84
At MD Anderson in Smithville, develops a research interest in T cells, the recently discovered soldiers of the adaptive immune system.
Antigen-presenting cells of the immune system plug antigens – pieces of viruses, bacteria, abnormal cells – into the T cell receptor to start an immune response.
Finding the gas pedals and blocking the brakes – 1985-2004
Professor, Division of Immunology, University of California, Berkeley.
In a 1992 paper in Nature, identifies the immune system gas pedal, CD28, a protein on T cells that must be turned on to stimulate an immune response when an antigen is presented to the T cell receptor.
Reports in a 1996 Science paper that blocking CTLA-4 with an antibody unleashes an immune response against cancer in experimental models, curing 90 percent of cases. Experiments in a variety of cancers repeat the same results.
Path to the clinic – 1996-2011
“I thought, ‘we need to get this to people as soon as we can,’” Allison recalls.
Begins years of urging biotech and pharmaceutical companies to develop the drug and then works with two companies to move immune checkpoint blockade ahead.
In 1997, he’s named a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Becomes chairman of the Immunology Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 2004.
In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the anti-CTLA-4 antibody ipilimumab, now known as Yervoy, for treatment of late-stage melanoma after the drug becomes the first to extend the survival of these patients.
MD Anderson immunotherapy leader – 2012-present
Returns to MD Anderson in November 2012 to lead Immunology Department and new immunotherapy platform to extend the reach of cancer immunotherapy. MD Anderson invests $40 million in the platform, including a $10 million recruitment grant for Allison from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
Immunotherapy platform becomes vital part of MD Anderson’s ambitious Moon Shots Program to accelerate life-saving advances based on scientific discoveries. All moon shots include cancer immunotherapy projects and clinical trials. The platform works with nearly 100 immunotherapy clinical trials launched at MD Anderson since 2012. Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Genitourinary Medical Oncology and Immunology and platform scientific director, also is a leader of national immune checkpoint blockade clinical trials for kidney and bladder cancer. Together, Allison and Sharma direct efforts to bring the durable benefits of immunotherapy to more patients.
Wins first AACR-CRI Lloyd J. Old-CRI Award in Cancer Immunology given by the American Association of Cancer Research, the world’s pre-eminent organization for cancer scientists.
Wins the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, the nation’s highest honor for clinical research in September 2015.
In 2016, becomes MD Anderson director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI), a new $250 million effort by social media billionaire Sean Parker to advance the field. Co-directs with Sharma. Makes MD Anderson one of six elite institutions chosen for PICI.
Is named to Blue Ribbon Panel to advise the National Cancer Institute in its work with Vice President Joe Biden’s National Cancer Moonshot.
In 2017 wins the Inaugural Sjoberg Prize from the Sjoberg Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; the Wolf Prize for Medicine awarded in Israel by the Wolf Foundation; the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize and the International Balzan Foundation Prize.
In 2018, wins Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal from the National Academy of Sciences; the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biomedicine; the King Faisal Prize for Medicine from the King Faisal Foundation; Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research from Johnson & Johnson; and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.
About MD Anderson
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston ranks as one of the world's most respected centers focused on cancer patient care, research, education and prevention. The institution’s sole mission is to end cancer for patients and their families around the world. MD Anderson is one of only 47 comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). MD Anderson is ranked No.1 for cancer care in U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals” survey. It has ranked as one of the nation’s top two hospitals for cancer care since the survey began in 1990, and has ranked first 13 times in the last 16 years. MD Anderson receives a cancer center support grant from the NCI of the National Institutes of Health (P30 CA016672).