James Allison, the winner of the 2018 Nobel Medicine Prize, has said he never dreamed that his research would take the direction it has.
The American immunologist and Tasuku Honjo of Japan jointly won on Monday the 2018 Nobel Medicine Prize for research into how the body’s natural defences can fight cancer.
Allison, PhD, chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, has been 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 tumour.
He 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.
“By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumour cells, this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy,” the Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm noted while announcing the award to 70-year-old Allison and 76-year-old Honjo, MD, PhD, of Kyoto University in Japan.
Allison said: “I’m honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition. 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”.
He started his career at MD Anderson in 1977, arriving as one of the first employees of a new basic science research center located in Smithville, Texas.
“Allison’s accomplishments on behalf of patients cannot be overstated. 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,” said MD Anderson President Peter WT Pisters.
The prize recognises 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.
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. His work led to the development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug.
His drug, known commercially as Yervoy, became the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma.
“I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has. 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 said.
Science advances on the efforts of many, he said.
“A succession of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and colleagues at MD Anderson, the University of California, Berkeley, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center played important roles in this research,” he said.
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 leads the immunotherapy platform for MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program, which conducts immune monitoring by analyzing tumour samples before, during and after treatment, aiming to understand why these drugs work for some patients but not for others.
The platform works with more than 100 immunotherapy clinical trials at MD Anderson addressing a variety of cancers. The platform also collaborates with pharmaceutical companies to help them develop new drugs and combinations to better treat cancer.
“We need these drugs to work for more people. One challenge is that the clinical success has outrun our scientific knowledge of how these drugs work and how they might best be combined with other therapies to improve treatment and reduce unwanted side effects. We need more basic science research to do that,” Allison said.
He has collaboratively worked with scientists around the globe to expand the field of immunotherapy.
Allison will be honoured at Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm in December. The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded 108 times to 214 Nobel laureates between 1901 and 2017.
Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson Cancer Center, praised Monday the work of Allison.