Discovering key elements of immune system T cell biology and applying that knowledge to create a new way to treat cancer has earned Jim Allison, Ph.D., the 2014 Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research from the National Foundation for Cancer Research.
The NFCR, a leading charity funding cancer research and public education, announced its ninth annual award, named for its co-founder Albert Szent-Györgyi, M.D., Ph.D., the 1937 Nobel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology.
"Dr. Allison's work has already saved numerous lives and shines a bright light on a future direction of oncology," said Alex Matter, M.D., CEO of Experimental Therapeutics Centre & D3, A*STAR in Singapore. Matter won the 2013 prize and chaired this year's prize selection committee.
"He has validated the immunotherapy approach and turned previously widely-held beliefs on their heads with his discoveries," Matter said in the NFCR announcement. "His work is extremely significant and constitutes a turning point in the history of progress in cancer treatments."
Allison, professor and chair of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and director of the Moon Shots Program immunotherapy platform, was recruited to MD Anderson in 2012 to build a program that supports immunotherapy research across multiple cancer types
Treating the immune system, not the tumor
"Jim Allison is a brilliant basic scientist who rigorously pursued his curiosity about the biology of T cells, leading to remarkable discoveries and a truly disruptive approach to treating cancer," MD Anderson President Ron DePinho, M.D., said.
"The Szent-Gyorgyi prize recognizes the impact of his work to unleash the immune system against cancer, greatly extending the lives of many patients with previously untreatable, advanced melanoma," DePinho said. "We are proud to have him leading MD Anderson's efforts to improve and extend this approach to more patients in many types of cancer."
Researchers recently reported that 21 percent of patients with advanced melanoma survived to three years after taking the drug developed by Allison, with some living 10 years or longer, unheard of results for a previously untreatable terminal cancer.
"The Szent-Györgyi Prize is a wonderful honor and I'm gratified to receive this recognition by the NFCR, a foundation that does so much to advance cancer research," Allison said. "Ongoing recognition of checkpoint blockade immunotherapy for cancer reflects the early success and great potential of treating the immune system, rather than the tumor, to destroy cancer."
Allison will be honored at an award ceremony held April 30, 2014 at The National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Since 1973, NFCR has provided nearly $310 million in direct support of discovery-oriented cancer research focused on understanding how and why cells become cancerous, and on public education relating to cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.
Allison's research solved a crucial part of a puzzle that thwarted immunotherapy development for decades. Tumors spark an immune response, but cancer cells somehow evaded or thwarted a lethal attack by T cells - white blood cells that enforce an immune response to invading infections and the body's own abnormal cells.
After launching his career and T cell research at MD Anderson, Allison moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where he identified an immune checkpoint molecule called CTLA-4 on T cells that turns them off before they can mount a successful attack on tumors that they are primed to destroy.
Moon Shots platform advances clinical and translational research
Allison developed an antibody that blocks the CTLA-4 1mmune checkpoint, unleashing a T cell attack. Ipilimumab (Yervoy®) became the first drug to extend survival for patients with late-stage melanoma. It was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of metastatic melanoma in 2011.
Since then, additional immune checkpoints and drugs to target them have been discovered and are advancing in clinical trials. At MD Anderson, clinical trials of ipilimumab and other drugs individually or in combination target melanoma, lymphoma, lung, breast, gastric and prostate cancers.
MD Anderson's Moon Shots Program is an ambitious effort to dramatically reduce cancer deaths, starting with six moon shots that target eight cancers and are backed by several platforms - infrastructure, technology or expertise - that support research efforts. The immunotherapy platform has increased and enhanced the institution's capabilities in preclinical and clinical research since Allison's arrival from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in 2012.
In December, MD Anderson signed collaborative agreements with Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to develop immunology-based approaches to cancer treatment through the immunotherapy platform.
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.
Last year, Allison received a Breakthrough Prize for Biosciences from the Breakthrough Foundation, The Economist's 2013 Innovations Award for Bioscience and the first AACR-CRI Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology of the American Association for Cancer Research. The journal Science named cancer immunotherapy its 2013 Breakthrough of the Year.