The chair of immunology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was one of the two winners of the 2015 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, awarded in Frankfurt, Germany. James Allison, PhD, was recognized with one of the most prestigious international awards in the field for his dedication and achievements regarding innovative methods for the treatment of cancer, particularly the fight against late stage melanoma.
The award was granted to both Allison and Carl June, who is a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, since the two investigators use the immune system to combat cancer and have been able to increase patient survival through their research. As the executive director of the immunotherapy platform at MD Anderson, Allison is responsible for immunotherapy research aimed at several types of cancers.
“In immunotherapy, it’s not the tumor but the immune system that is targeted. This marks a new therapeutic principle in oncology,” stated the Scientific Council of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation, explaining the choice of the two scientists. Immunotherapy has gained the attention of scientists as a potential oncology treatment, which includes the Moon Shots Program conducted at MD Anderson since 2012 that intends to advance the conversion of scientific discoveries into practical clinical outcomes.
Allison, who heads the program, is also the inventor of a novel cancer treatment that blocks certain molecules on immune T cells and had a significant weight for this recognition. “This award is special to me because it’s named for Paul Ehrlich, the German scientist who was first to suggest immune system surveillance of cancer more than 100 years ago,” said Allison in a press release. “It’s also wonderful recognition of the progress that immunotherapy is making against cancer.”
The scientist’s pioneer therapeutic option known as immune checkpoint blockade is based on the obstruction of molecules responsible for braking the immune response. Due to this discovery, Allison was able to develop the innovative drug ipilimumab, which destroyed untreatable late-stage melanoma in 22% of patients, revealing unprecedented results for the disease.
“We don’t attack the tumor cells directly. We unleash the T cells to effectively attack many types of cancer in humans. That’s the big difference to conventional chemotherapy,” added Allison about the drug that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under the name Yervoy (ipilimumab). The scientist first started studying T cell biology when he first went to MD Anderson during the 1980s, after which he moved to the University of California and to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, having returned to MD Anderson in 2012.