Allison received the recognition for research that led to the discovery that cancer can be treated by targeting the immune system. Scientists used the insight to develop checkpoint blockers. One of them, Yervoy (ipilimumab), became the first treatment ever to extend the survival of people with metastatic melanoma.
“Each year our TIME 100 list lets us step back and measure the forces that move us,” wrote Nancy Gibbs, the editor of TIME. “One way or another they each embody a breakthrough: they broke the rules, broke the record, broke the silence, broke the boundaries to reveal what we’re capable of. They are seekers, with a fearless willingness to be surprised by what they find.”
“I’m grateful to TIME for recognizing the increasing importance of immunotherapy as a new pillar of cancer treatment,” Allison, MD Anderson’s immunology chair, said in a press release.
Although Allison’s research changed the way cancer is viewed, it was not a passion for oncology that led him there.
“It is important to note that immune checkpoint blockade came from understanding the basic science of the immune system,” he said. “I didn’t set out as a young scientist to develop cancer therapies, but to understand T-cells, these amazing cells that travel our bodies to protect us from disease.”
After a long journey, starting and ending at MD Anderson — with research at other institutions in between — Allison established MD Anderson’s Immunotherapy Platform.
The platform analyzes blood and tumor samples at times before and during treatment to understand patients’ response to therapies, including developing resistance to them.
“We’re in the early days of successful cancer immunotherapy. Our next step is to extend these treatments to benefit more patients, and our platform is intensely focused on making that a reality,” Allison said.
He was one of the researchers who discovered CTLA4, which acts as a brake on T-cells, preventing them from attacking cancer. Allison’s idea was to use this insight to develop a new type of cancer treatment.
If CTLA4 could be blocked with an antibody, the full potential of the immune system could be unleashed to attack cancer, he believed. After proving the idea in mice, Allison pushed for the approach to be tried in cancer patients. That ultimately led to Yervoy.
Since then, other checkpoint blockers have been approved for several types of cancer, including melanoma, lymphoma, and lung cancer. Clinical trials are investigating their suitability in numerous other cancers as well.
“The next challenge is to understand who benefits from treatment, who doesn’t, and develop rational combination therapies to help those who don’t,” Allison said. “There are many possible combinations – with other immunotherapies, targeted therapies, chemotherapies, radiation – and basic science will be important to help us more efficiently sort out these options.”
“We’re pleased to see the impact of Jim’s research accomplishments highlighted alongside those of other great pioneers and icons,” said Marshall Hicks, Anderson’s interim president.