The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has honored Dr. Jim Allison, chair of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, with the Science of Oncology Award on May 31 at the 2015 ASCO Annual Meeting held in Chicago. Dr. Allison has conducted pioneering research which led to new therapeutic strategies for cancer through the stimulation of an immune system attack instead of directly targeting the tumor.
Cancer immunotherapy is defined by the use of the body’s own immune system to help fight cancer. One promising immunotherapy strategy developed is based on immune checkpoint blockade, where regulatory pathways in T cells (a white blood cell type that plays a central role in immunity) are targeted in order to enhance anti-cancer immune responses. Immune checkpoint blockade therapies do not directly target the tumor, instead they stimulate the immune system to identify and kill cells with recognized tumor antigens. Ipilimumab (Yervoy) is an example of a checkpoint inhibitor, it is an antibody that blocks a molecule on T cells named CTLA-4 (cytotoxic T-lymphocyte–associated antigen 4), which once activated down-regulates the immune system.
ASCO highlighted Dr. Allison’s work and, according to a news release, noted that his “research on T-cell response mechanisms and cancer’s evasion of attack by the immune system led to the clinical development of ipilimumab to block CTLA-4 and its approval as a melanoma treatment.” By blocking CTLA-4, ipilimumab stimulates antitumor immunity. It has been reported that a proportion of patients with late-stage melanoma who are treated with ipilimumab can survive for at least four years, a remarkable finding.
“I’m grateful for this recognition from ASCO and optimistic that immune checkpoint blockade, in rational combination with other therapies, may prove to be curative for many patients across different types of cancer,” said Dr. Allison. His award lecture was entitled “Immune Checkpoint Blockade in Cancer Therapy: New Insights, Opportunities, and Prospects for a Cure”.
Dr. Allison founded and directs the MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform where immunology-based drugs and possible combinations are developed and tested. His research is centered on the development of new drugs that are able to block immune checkpoints or promote an immune response. The identification of the optimal combination between immunotherapy and other treatments is essential to increase patient’s response rates and survival.