An MD Anderson researcher has been awarded for his work leading to an entirely new way to treat cancer.
James Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology, and Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., dean of Kyoto University’s Faculty of Medicine in Japan, recently received the first Tang Prize for Biopharmaceutical Science. The pair were awarded for their research in cancer immunotherapy, a new type of treatment that stimulates the body’s immune system to help it fight cancer more effectively.
Allison and Honjo will share the prize, which consists of a $1.3 million cash award and $334,000 research grant. The Tang Prize is the first international academic award based in Taiwan and was established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin to promote innovation and new talent. The prize, which will be presented biennially, covers categories not included in the Nobel Prize.
Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s pre-eminent academic organization, similar to the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, administered the award selection. Allison and Honjo were chosen from hundreds of international nominees.
“Both scholars’ discoveries have opened a new therapeutic era in medicine,” said Lee Yuan-tseh, Ph.D., Taiwan’s winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, at the award announcement in Taipei, Taiwan. Allison launched a new way to treat cancer by blocking molecules that disable T cells — the immune system’s customized attackers that wage war on invading cancer cells.
Specifically, Allison developed an antibody to block CTLA-4, an off-switch on T cells. By blocking CTLA-4, the T cells were once again free to attack tumors. Ipilimumab, a drug based on his antibody, has extinguished untreatable late-stage melanoma in 22% of patients for three years or longer in clinical trials, which are unprecedented results. The Food and Drug Administration approved the drug, now called Yervoy, for metastatic melanoma in 2011.
“Receiving the Tang Prize is a great honor for me, as well as recognition of the growing importance of cancer immunotherapy,” Allison said. Honjo discovered the molecule PD1, which also prevents T cells from fighting cancer. A variety of experimental drugs to block PD1 and its activating ligand, PD-L1, are showing great promise in clinical trials.
Immune checkpoint blockade therapy, as this form of immunotherapy is called, is being use to treat other types of cancer through clinical trials. Researchers are studying how these drugs work in combination with targeted therapies, chemotherapy and each other, as well as why they only work for some patients.
Allison is executive director of the immunotherapy platform of MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program, which aims to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths. The platform also supports immunotherapy research across multiple cancer types.
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.