How does cancer immunotherapy work?
Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology, has received the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The honor recognizes Allison’s pioneering research in cancer immunotherapy. It comes with a $25,000 prize and a $50,000 grant to support his research.
Allison invented immune checkpoint blockade as a cancer treatment. Rather than targeting the cancer directly, this approach treats the immune system, freeing it to attack the tumor by blocking a brake on immune response.
“Dr. Allison’s research insights and his drive to see them translated into a new therapeutic approach for patients inform our immunotherapy efforts,” says Peter Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “We’re proud to have him as a leader and colleague.”
Allison is executive director of the immunotherapy platform for MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program™, a focused effort to more rapidly develop ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer. He also is co-director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at MD Anderson with Padmanee Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Genitourinary Medical Oncology and Immunology.
The NAS notes Allison’s pivotal discovery of the protein structure of the T cell receptor, the “ignition switch” on the white blood cells that act as the immune system’s targeted warriors. His finding in 1983, while a young investigator at MD Anderson, led to subsequent discoveries. He uncovered the function of CD28 on T cells, for example, as the “gas pedal” that accelerates immune attack.
He later showed that blocking CTLA-4, another molecule on T cells that acts as a brake on immune response, led to tumor immunity in mice. Allison worked for years with pharmaceutical companies to get this cancer treatment to people, culminating in the 2011 approval of ipilimumab (marketed as Yervoy) to treat stage IV melanoma. Ipilimumab was the first drug ever shown to extend survival in these patients.
Learn more about how immunotherapy works in this video: