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MD Anderson researcher James Allison, Ph.D., receives Pezcoller Award

University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center

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Credit: MD Anderson Cancer Center

Cancer scientist James Allison, Ph.D., internationally known for his role in developing a new class of cancer immunotherapies, has been named a recipient of the 2015 Pezcoller Foundation-American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) International Award for Cancer Research. The award will be presented to Allison, at the 2015 AACR Annual Meeting, to be held in Philadelphia, April 18-22.

Allison, chair of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, is being acknowledged for his groundbreaking discovery that blocking cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated antigen 4 (CTLA-4) signaling improves antitumor immune responses, as well as for his role in developing the CTLA-4 inhibitor ipilimumab (Yervoy), which was the first of a new class of cancer immunotherapeutics called immune checkpoint inhibitors. Ipilimumab, which was approved to treat metastatic melanoma by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011, was the first therapeutic to improve survival rates among patients with this deadly form of cancer.

At MD Anderson, Allison also serves as executive director of the immunology platform for MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program, associate director of the Center for Cancer Immunology Research, deputy director of the David H. Koch Center for Applied Research in Genitourinary Cancer, and the Lilian H. Smith distinguished chair of immunology and a member of the AACR board of directors. He is also deputy editor of Cancer Immunology Research and scientific editor of Cancer Discovery.

The Pezcoller Foundation-AACR International Award, now in its 18th year, recognizes an individual scientist of international renown who has made a major scientific discovery in basic or translational cancer research.

"This high honor is yet further recognition of the pioneering work undertaken by Dr. Allison," said Ronald DePinho, M.D, president of MD Anderson. "He is, without question, one of the leading cancer researchers in the world today and has made historic contributions to advances in cancer treatment. We are immensely proud of his achievements and congratulate him on being named this year's Pezcoller Award recipient."

Allison's research into the molecular mechanisms of activating the T-cell receptor and the downstream signal transduction events that affect immune function led to his finding that CTLA-4 is an immune system inhibitory checkpoint molecule expressed by T cells. His lab then developed an antibody against CTLA-4, which they went on to show inhibited tumor growth in mice.

This basic research discovery led to the development of ipilimumab. By specifically blocking the inhibitor function of CTLA-4, ipilimumab allows T cells to attack and eliminate cancer cells. Allison called this action mechanism "immune checkpoint blockade." He believes that by combining targeted therapies with immunotherapeutics that mediate checkpoint blockade, one can turn cancer's genomic instability, which it uses to build resistance to drugs, against it. Allison is currently investigating additional mechanisms involved in T-cell activation and signaling pathways.

"Dr. Allison is a world-renowned immunologist, and we are delighted to recognize his extraordinary scientific accomplishments and leadership in the field of cancer immunotherapy," said Margaret Foti, Ph.D., M.D, chief executive officer of the AACR. "His dedicated efforts established the paradigm of immune checkpoint inhibitors, which is transforming the lives of many patients with melanoma and offering hope for patients with other forms of cancer. Dr. Allison's work epitomizes how basic laboratory research can be translated to a lifesaving cancer treatment, and he is greatly deserving of this accolade."

"I am deeply honored and humbled to receive the Pezcoller Award," said Allison. "This award by the AACR recognizes the efforts of my research team over the years to develop strategies to unleash the immune system to treat cancer, as well as the many other investigators, clinicians, and patients whose efforts and courage made immunotherapy of cancer a reality that is benefiting cancer patients."

Allison is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and is a fellow of the Institute of Medicine, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, and the American Academy of Microbiology.

Other accolades include:

  • Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences
  • Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research from the National Foundation for Cancer Research
  • The first Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science
  • Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Association of Immunologists
  • Centeon Award for Innovative Breakthroughs in Immunology, and
  • the William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Biology from the Cancer Research Institute

He received the inaugural AACR-Cancer Research Institute Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology, the AACR-G.H.A. Clowes Memorial Award, the Canada Gairdner Foundation award, and leads the Stand Up To Cancer-Cancer Research Institute Dream Team: Immunologic Checkpoint Blockade and Adoptive Cell Transfer in Cancer Therapy.

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