Allison, who invented a completely new way to strike cancer by unlocking a shackled immune system attack, was named the 2015 winner of the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. The Lasker awards, in their 70th year, honor major achievements in basic science, clinical research and public service around the world.
“I’m honored and grateful to receive the Lasker award. As a basic scientist, I was pleasantly surprised, really kind of stunned, to receive the clinical award,” Allison says. “This award is also important recognition of the early success of cancer immunotherapy and its great potential to extend survival of cancer patients for decades and ultimately to cure some types of cancer.”
Lasker recipients are chosen by a distinguished international jury to recognize major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure and prevention of human disease.
Allison’s research into the biology of T cells, white blood cells that serve as the immune system’s customized guided weapons, led him to develop an antibody that blocks an “off switch” on those cells, unleashing an immune response against cancer.
“The Lasker Award highlights Jim’s genius, creativity and passion to make an impact, all of which contributed to one of the most important therapeutic advances in a generation.”
Drugs using this approach, called immune checkpoint blockade, now are approved for treating late-stage melanoma and lung cancer. Hundreds of clinical trials worldwide are underway in earlier stages of the disease and against other cancers.
The Lasker award
Founded in 1942, the Lasker Foundation seeks to improve health by accelerating support for medical research through recognition of scientific excellence, public education and advocacy.
Mary Lasker, who led the foundation for decades, was a prominent activist for public investment in medical research and is widely credited with motivating Congress and several presidents to expand federal funding, particularly through the National Institutes of Health.
“It is a rare medical scientist who makes a fundamental discovery and then propels that discovery all the way to a clinical breakthrough. That is what Jim Allison has done, and that is why he is receiving the 2015 Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award,” said Nobel Laureate J. Michael Bishop, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, while presenting the award at a ceremony in New York.
The first drug developed from Allison’s research became the first treatment ever shown to extend the survival of patients with late-stage, untreatable melanoma. Long-term studies show 20% of such patients treated with ipilimumab, marketed as Yervoy, survive for at least 10 years, previously unheard of results for the disease.
“The Lasker Award highlights Jim’s genius, creativity and passion to make an impact, all of which contributed to one of the most important therapeutic advances in a generation. One that continues to change the practice of oncology around the world,” says MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho, M.D. “As we explore the full potential of immunotherapy, countless cancer patients already have experienced renewed promise and health, thanks to this groundbreaking advance, and we remain hopeful for so much more.”
After an early career posting at MD Anderson, Allison returned in 2012 to lead its immunology department and establish the cancer immunotherapy platform, a combination of expertise and infrastructure that brings together scientists and clinicians to better understand and advance cancer immunotherapy.
The platform is part of MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program, which is designed to harness scientific knowledge and develop new technologies that will dramatically reduce cancer deaths through prevention, early detection and treatment.
“Jim once described his motivation as ‘the selfish desire to be the first person on the planet to know something,’” Bishop said. “He has satisfied that desire in spades and, as a result, the planet promises to become a far better place for cancer patients. Bravo, Jim!”