The already much-heralded University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has just scored global bragging rights. Jim Allison, a scientist at the revered health institute in Houston, has been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, it was announced on October 1.
Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform, is the first MD Anderson scientist to receive the world’s most coveted award for discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine. Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor, according to a release.
“I’m honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition,” Allison says in a statement. “A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. I didn’t set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells to travel our bodies and work to protect us.”
Allison shares the award with Dr. Tasuku Honjo, of Kyoto University in Japan. When announcing the honor, the Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm noted in a statement that “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 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 blockade to treat cancer. According to MD Anderson, 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 developed an antibody to block the checkpoint protein CTLA-4 and demonstrated the success of the approach in experimental models.
Allison’s work led to development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug which would become the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma. Follow-up studies show 20 percent of those treated live for at least three years with many living for 10 years and beyond, unprecedented results, according to the cancer center.
“Jim Allison’s accomplishments on behalf of patients cannot be overstated,” says MD Anderson president Dr. Peter WT Pisters, in a statement. “His research has led to life-saving 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.”
“I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has,” Allison adds. “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.”