James Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center, was awarded the 2015 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize Saturday in recognition of his work opening a completely new way to treat cancer.
“In immunotherapy, it’s not the tumor but the immune system that is targeted. This marks a new therapeutic principle in oncology,” the Scientific Council of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation wrote in explaining its decision to honor Allison and Carl June, M.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, with the prestigious international prize. Allison received the prize at a ceremony in Frankfurt, Germany.
Allison pioneered a new way to treat cancer by blocking molecules on immune system T cells that act as a brake on immune response. The treatment, called immune checkpoint blockade, grew out of his basic science research into the biology of T cells — the immune system’s customized attack cells.
He developed an antibody to block CTLA-4, a checkpoint molecule on T cells, unleashing an immune attack on tumors. The resulting drug, ipilimumab, has extinguished untreatable late-stage melanoma in 22% of patients for at least 10 years, unprecedented results for the disease.
“This award is special to me because it’s named for Paul Ehrlich, the German scientist who was first to suggest immune system surveillance of cancer more than 100 years ago,” Allison said. “It’s also wonderful recognition of the progress that immunotherapy is making against cancer.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug, now called Yervoy®, for metastatic melanoma in 2011. Since then, ipilimumab and new drugs that impede other checkpoints have been applied to other solid tumor cancers, including lung, bladder and kidney cancers.
His research focuses on developing new drugs that block other checkpoints or that stimulate immune response. A key effort is identifying the best combinations of immunotherapy and other treatment types to increase response rates and lengthen patient survival.
Allison also is executive director of MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform, which supports immunotherapy research across multiple cancer types, including its Moon Shots Program, established in 2012 to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths.
June pioneered an approach that customizes a patient’s T cells to attack leukemia.
Allison launched his research in T cell biology during his first stay at MD Anderson, making seminal findings in the early 1980s before moving to the University of California, where his research led to the development of ipilimumab. He moved to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York before returning to MD Anderson in 2012.
The Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize traditionally is awarded on March 14, the birthday of Ehrlich, who shared the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the immune system. The Paul Ehrlich Foundation is managed by the Association of Friends and Sponsors of the Goethe University in Frankfurt.
Since 1952, the award has honored scientists who have made significant contributions in Ehrlich’s many fields of research, including immunology, cancer research, microbiology and chemotherapy.
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