Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology and executive director of the immunotherapy platform at MD Anderson, has won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Allison, who launched an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor, is the first MD Anderson scientist to receive the world's preeminent award for outstanding discoveries in life sciences and medicine.
By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year's Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy," the Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm noted Oct. 1 in announcing the award to Allison and Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., of Kyoto University in Japan.
Allison says he is "honored and humbled" to receive the prestigious recognition.
"A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge," he says. "I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells that travel our bodies and work to protect us."
Allison started his career at MD Anderson in 1977, as one of the first employees of a new basic science research center in Smithville. He was recruited back to MD Anderson in November 2012 to lead the Immunology Department and to establish an immunotherapy research platform for MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program™.
Allison also serves as a co-leader of the Stand Up to Cancer-Cancer Research Institute Cancer Immunology Dream Team and as a director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI). He is deputy director of the David H. Koch Center for Applied Cancer Research of Genitourinary Cancers at MD Anderson and holds the Vivian l. Smith Distinguished Chair in Immunology.
Funding for his research has come from the National Institutes of Health, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, Howard Hughes Medical institute, the Cancer Research Institute, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Stand Up to Cancer, PICI and many private donors.
"Jim Allison's accomplishments on behalf of patients cannot be overstated," says MD Anderson President Peter WT Pisters, M.D., "His research has led to lifesaving treatments for people who otherwise would have little hope. The significance of immunotherapy as a form of cancer treatment will be felt for generations to come."
The prize recognizes Allison's basic science discoveries on the biology of T cells, the adaptive immune system's soldiers, and his invention of immune checkpoint blockage to treat cancer.
Allison's crucial insight was to block a protein on T cells that acts as a brake on their activation, freeing the T cells to attack cancer. He development an antibody to block the checkpoint protein CTLA-4 and demonstrated the success of the approach in experimental models. His work led to development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved ipilimumab for late-stage melanoma in 2011. Known commercially as Yervoy, it became the first drug to extend the survival of patients with late-stag melanoma.
Follow-up studies show unprecedented results ― 20% of those treated live for at least three years, with many living for 10 years and beyond. Subsequent research has extended this approach to new immune regulatory targets, with drugs approved to treat certain types and stages of melanoma, lung cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, gastric cancer, liver cancer, cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, and head and neck cancers and Hodgkin lymphoma. Clinical trials are underway in many other cancer types.
"I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has," Allison says. "It's a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who've been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade. They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work."
Allison will be honored at Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm in December. For more information about Allison, his work and the Moon Shots Program, visit mdanderson.org/nobelprize.