The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Dr. James Allison has been presented with a litany of awards for his pioneering work on cancer immunotherapy during his relatively brief but meteoric presence at the Center. Now, Allison has been granted yet another prestigious award, this time from a leading Canadian institution.
The Gairdner Foundation, which through its annual Canada Gairdner Awards recognizes major medical discoveries worldwide, named Allison’s work among an elite list of researchers. The class of award winners this year make breakthrough discoveries in cardiovascular disease and human parasitic diseases in addition to cancer and immunotherapy, as it relates to Dr. Allison’s discovery of immune checkpoint blockade and its successful application to immune therapy of cancer.
Specifically, the Gairdner Foundation highlighted Allison’s discovery of the receptor that T cells utilize in order to recognize and bind to antigens for immune attack. While immunotherapy has been a major focus of cancer research, the stumbling block for decades had been understanding why the immune system doesn’t attack cancer cells as it would a virus or bacterial infection. Because Allison was able to finally discover the first ‘blocker’ that blocks the immune system from effectively fighting cancer, it has led to a treatment strategy that can clear this immune roadblock, an immune checkpoint molecule called CTLA-4.
Not only has Dr. Allison identified this roadblock, but also has developed ipilimumab, an experimental treatment in the form of an antibody that effectively blocks CTLA-4. By doing so, T cells are able to attack tumors and cancer cells as they would an infection. Thus far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ipilimumab (Yervoy®) for treatment of metastatic melanoma in 2011. The drug has also shown efficacy in clinical trials for prostate, kidney, lung and ovarian cancers.
The Canada Gairdner Awards are considered to be among the world’s most esteemed medical research prizes, which seek to distinguish Canada as a leader in science. The awards provide a $100,000 CDN prize to each scientist for their work. The Canada Gairdner Awards promote a stronger culture of research and innovation across the country, inspiring a new generation of researchers.