MD Anderson Immunologist Jim Allison Awarded 2018 Nobel Prize

Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor.

Allison is the first MD Anderson scientist to receive the world’s most preeminent award for outstanding discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine.

“I’m honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition,” Allison said. “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 travel to our bodies and work to protect us.”

The prize recognizes Allison’s basic science discoveries on the:

  • Biology of T cells
  • Adaptive immune system’s soldiers
  • Invention of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer

Allison’s discoveries

Allison’s crucial insight was to block a protein on T cells that act 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. His work led to the development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Ipilimumab in 2011 for late-stage melanoma.

His drug, known commercially as Yervoy, became 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. Subsequent research has extended this approach to new immune regulatory targets, most prominently PD-1 and PD-L1, with drugs approved to treat certain types and stages of:

  • Melanoma
  • Lung
  • Kidney
  • Bladder
  • Gastric
  • Liver
  • Cervical
  • Colorectal
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Clinical trials are underway in many other cancer types.

“I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has,” Allison said. “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.”

Allison’s leadership

Allison’s ongoing leadership at MD Anderson focuses on improving knowledge of how these drugs work to extend the benefits of immunotherapy to more patients with more types of cancer. He continues his own research by focusing on the details of the immune response to cancer as well as identifying new targets for potential treatment.

Additionally, he leads the Moon Shots Program immunotherapy platform, which conducts immune monitoring by analyzing tumor samples before, during and after treatment. It also aims to understand why these drugs work for some patients but not for others.

He will be honored at Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm in December. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded 108 times to 214 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2017.

Watch a video to learn more about Jim Allison, Ph.D.