Related story: The immuno man
Translating Allison’s antibody against CTLA-4 into the clinic was a frustrating grind, so his legendary persistence became crucial. He shopped it to 12 companies over two years, none of which were interested.
Some were intimidated that Bristol-Myers Squibb had a patent on another antibody to CTLA-4. Others scoffed at yet another immunotherapy idea — a field plagued by earlier therapies that didn’t come close to living up to their hype.
Finally, a small company licensed the patent and tried unsuccessfully to make a small-molecule drug to block the brakes rather than use an antibody to CTLA-4 that he and colleague Alan Korman had made. The project stagnated.
“It got pretty ugly. I tried to get it back,” Allison says.
In 1998, a small biotech called Medarex bought the drug rights and made the human antibody to CTLA-4.
An early clinical trial was deemed a failure after tumors didn’t shrink by three months of treatment — the usual clinical-trial standard for new chemotherapy — and in some patients, tumors appeared to grow.
Fortunately, physicians involved in the clinical trial noted that many of the patients showed tumor shrinkage later than three months and continued to live well beyond the expected survival period for late-stage melanoma.
As it turned out, immune responses in those patients were sometimes slow to get started.
Bristol-Myers bought Medarex in 2009 for $2.4 billion and advanced ipilimumab through clinical trials, culminating in a successful phase III study that finally led to FDA approval in 2011. In the meantime, Allison had moved to Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York in 2004 to head its immunology efforts and work with clinicians conducting clinical trials there.