A career-long fascination with discovering the ins and outs of T cells, our immune system’s tailor-made destroyers of infections and dysfunctional cells, has earned Jim Allison, Ph.D., the American Cancer Society’s 2015 Medal of Honor for Basic Research.
Allison’s research led directly to new cancer therapies that free the immune system to attack tumors — a breakthrough called immune checkpoint blockade. The professor and chair of Immunology at MD Anderson recently received the award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a particular honor to receive this recognition from an organization so dedicated to finding cures for cancer,” Allison said. “For an immunologist who didn’t set out to address cancer, it’s also gratifying to see the impact of immunotherapy affirmed by this award.”
The drug ipilimumab (Yervoy), developed from Allison’s research, became the first treatment to improve the survival of patients with late stage melanoma and was approved for that purpose by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011. The first-of-its-kind treatment has led to long-term survival, if not cure, of about 20 percent of such patients.
A second type of drug in this class has been approved for melanoma and lung cancer. These drugs are being widely tested against other cancers as single therapies and in combinations. Rather than targeting cancer cells directly, they block surface proteins on T cells that turn off immune response, unleashing these white blood cells to seek and destroy cancer.
“Jim Allison’s much deserved recognition by the American Cancer Society reminds us that progress against cancer starts with basic scientists who illuminate the details of life at the molecular level,” said Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “Jim’s brilliance and avid pursuit of his curiosity about the fundamentals of T cells already have saved the lives of thousands of cancer patients and kept untold numbers of families together. And there is much research and discovery still to come based on his breakthrough.”
Read the full release in the newsroom section of MD Anderson's website.