HOUSTON – For basic science research that opened a completely new approach for treating cancer, The Economist has named James Allison, Ph.D., professor and chair of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, as its 2013 Innovations Award winner in Bioscience.
Allison identified an immune checkpoint molecule that turns off T cells – white blood cells that are the attack dogs of the immune system – before they can mount a successful response to tumors that they are primed to destroy.
An antibody that blocks that immune checkpoint molecule, unleashing a T cell attack, became the first drug to ever extend survival for patients with late-stage melanoma. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved ipilumumab (Yervoy®) for treatment of metastatic melanoma in 2011.
"The approval of ipilimumab in 2011 represents the culmination of years of research by Dr Allison into tumor immunotherapy," said Tom Standage, Digital Editor at The Economist and chairman of the panel of 30 judges. "We are delighted to recognize his pioneering achievement in the fight against cancer."
The Economist is a 170-year-old weekly news publication based in London with a circulation of 4.5 million worldwide. Its Innovation Awards recognize significant contributions in eight fields: Bioscience, Computing and Telecommunications, Consumer Products, Energy and Environment, Process and Services, Social and Economic, No Boundaries and Corporate.
"I'm honored to receive this award, which recognizes the increasing importance of immune therapy in the treatment of cancer due to the efforts of many scientists, clinicians and patients willing to participate in clinical trials," Allison said.
The adaptive immune system routinely identifies, destroys and remembers infections and abnormal cells. Yet cancer cells evade or suppress immune attack, largely frustrating efforts to develop vaccines and other immune therapies against tumors.
Drug treats immune system, not specific tumor
"Immune checkpoint blockade treats the immune system, not the tumor, so we expect this approach to work across many types of cancer," Allison said. In addition to melanoma, ipilumumab has been effective in clinical trials against prostate, kidney, lung and ovarian cancers.
Allison's basic science research on T cell biology uncovered the receptor on these cells used to recognize and bind to antigens – abnormalities that mark defective cells or viruses and bacteria for attack.
He also found that T cells require a second molecular signal to launch a response after they've bound to an antigen. And he identified a molecule called CTLA-4 that acts as an off switch to inhibit activated T cells from attacking.
This led to development of ipilumumab to block CTLA-4. In clinical trials against stage 4 melanoma, the drug extinguished the disease in 20 percent of patients for up to 12 years and counting.
Since arriving at MD Anderson in November 2012, Allison founded and directs an immunotherapy platform to cultivate, support and test new development of immunology-based drugs and combinations. MD Anderson's Moon Shots program, designed to accelerate the conversion of scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths, taps the expertise of the immunotherapy platform.
Allison earned his doctorate from The University of Texas at Austin in 1978, joining MD Anderson's faculty after his postdoctoral fellowship. He left MD Anderson for the University of California, Berkeley and later moved to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and has won many honors for biomedical research, including the first AACR-CRI Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in April 2013.
Allison will receive his award at a ceremony in London on Dec. 3.