Dr. James Allison, chair of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Immunology department, makes biotech headlines on a wide range of cancer-related fronts, from his role as executive director of the Moon Shots Program immunotherapy platform, to his own critical research in the lab. Over the past months, his research into T-cell response and ow cancer defends against the immune system has led to a number of awards and recognition from the likes of The Economist, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies, the Novartis Prize for Immunology, and most recently, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is an award developed by entrepreneurs Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, that recognizes researchers who are exceptionally advancing research that extends human life and cures deadly diseases like cancer. The award is designed to champion researchers who are seeking answers to the most puzzling questions in medicine, and taking bold steps to develop cures, as Anne Wojcicki and Sergey Brin stated in their news release announcing the awards: “Scientists should be celebrated as heroes, and we’re honored to be part of today’s celebration of the newest winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and the Fundamental Physics Prize.”
Dr. Allison was gracious in his own statement about the award, commenting: “I’m honored and exhilarated to receive this generous award established by the founders of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation,” adding, “My profound thanks go to them for recognizing my own work and for establishing this prize to promote research, celebrate scientists and to generate excitement about careers in science.” As an Alice, Texas native and UT Austin graduate, Dr. Allison is seeking to leverage his Breakthrough award to further high school science programs.
Dr. Allison is currently serving his second stint at MD Anderson, having started there in 1977 before moving to UC Berkley. Have arrived back in Houston in November of 2012 for a second time at MD Anderson, he has since gone on to establish the immunotherapy platform at the Center, which cultivates, supports, and tests the development of immunology-based drugs and combinations. He is also at the center of the successful Moon Shots Program, which is “designed to accelerate the conversion of scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths, taps the expertise of the immunotherapy platform,” according to an MD Anderson press release.
In terms of the research which led to him receiving the Breakthrough Prize, it is specifically Dr. Allison’s research on the biology of T cells — the immune system’s protective “attack cells primed to identify and destroy infections and the body’s abnormal cells” — and the following discoveries related to T cell behavior:
Identification of the receptor on T cells used to recognize and bind to antigens – abnormalities that mark defective cells or viruses and bacteria for attack.
The discovery that T cells require a second molecular signal from co-stimulatory molecules to launch a response after they’ve bound to an antigen.
A discovery involving a receptor on T cells called CTLA-4 that acts as a built-in off switch to stop T cells from attacking. These immune checkpoints usually protect normal tissues from autoimmunity and aren’t effective on abnormal cells.Cancer cells, however, activate CTLA-4.
As a result of these discoveries, Dr. Allison was then able to develop an antibody that led to development of ipilimumab to block CTLA-4. In clinical trials against stage 4 melanoma, the drug extinguished the disease in 24 percent of patients for up to 12 years and counting, unprecedented results against metastatic melanoma. The drug, now called Yervoy, was approved to treat melanoma by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011.
“Jim Allison richly deserves this wonderful prize for his pioneering research into how tumors evade destruction by immune system attack and how to overcome that defense by treating the immune system, rather than the cancer directly,” said MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho, M.D. “I extend my deepest appreciation to the Breakthrough Prize selection committee and its visionary sponsors for their recognition of Jim’s work that has offered real hope for cancer patients around the world.”