Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, received the 2015 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize Saturday in recognition of his work opening a completely new way to treat cancer.
"In immunotherapy, it's not the tumor but the immune system that is targeted. This marks a new therapeutic principle in oncology," the Scientific Council of the Paul Ehrlich Foundation wrote, explaining its decision to honor Allison and another scientist with the prestigious international prize. Allison received the prize at a ceremony in Frankfurt, Germany.
Allison also is executive director of MD Anderson's immunotherapy platform, which supports immunotherapy research across multiple cancer types, including its Moon Shots Program, established in 2012 to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths.
"This award is special to me because it's named for Paul Ehrlich, the German scientist who was first to suggest immune system surveillance of cancer more than 100 years ago," Allison said. "It's also wonderful recognition of the progress that immunotherapy is making against cancer."
Allison pioneered a new way to treat cancer by blocking molecules on immune system T cells that act as a brake on immune response. The treatment, called immune checkpoint blockade, grew out of his basic science research into the biology of T cells - the immune system's customized attack cells.
He developed an antibody to block CTLA-4, a checkpoint molecule on T cells, unleashing an immune attack on tumors. The resulting drug, ipilimumab, has extinguished untreatable late-stage melanoma in 22 percent of patients for at least 10 years, unprecedented results for the disease.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug, now called Yervoy®, for metastatic melanoma in 2011. Since then, ipilimumab and new drugs that impede other checkpoints have been applied to other solid tumor cancers, including lung, bladder and kidney cancers.
His research focuses on developing new drugs that block other checkpoints or that stimulate immune response. A key effort is identifying the best combinations of immunotherapy and other treatment types to increase response rates and lengthen patient survival.
He shares the 2015 prize with Carl June, M.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, who pioneered an approach that customizes a patient's T cells to attack leukemia.
Allison also is deputy director of the David H Koch Center for Applied Research of Genitourinary Cancers and holds the Vivian L. Smith Distinguished Chair in Immunology at MD Anderson. Allison also is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine.
Allison launched his research in T cell biology during his first stay at MD Anderson, making seminal findings in the early 1980s before moving to the University of California, where his research led to the development of ipilimumab. He moved to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York before returning to MD Anderson in 2012.
The Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize is traditionally awarded on March 14, the birthday of Ehrlich, who shared the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the immune system. The Paul Ehrlich Foundation is managed by the Association of Friends and Sponsors of the Goethe University in Frankfurt.
Since 1952, the award has honored scientists who have made significant contributions in Ehrlich's many fields of research, including immunology, cancer research, microbiology and chemotherapy.
Allison has received dozens of awards, including the first AACR-CRI Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology ever bestowed by the American Association for Cancer Research, the Breakthrough Prize from the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation, The Economist magazine's Innovations Award for Bioscience, the Canada Gairdner International Award from the Gairdner Foundation, the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University, Szent-Gyorgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research from the National Foundation for Cancer Research, G.H.A. Clowes award from AACR and the Tang Prize for Biopharmaceutical Science from the Tang Prize Foundation in Taiwan.