James P. Allison, PhD
The BBVA Foundation awarded its Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Biomedicine category to American immunologist James P. Allison, PhD, whose innovative research has almost single-handedly transformed cancer treatment. His seminal research in immunotherapy has paved the way for the development of antitumor therapies for patients with various types of cancer, including melanoma, kidney, head/neck, bladder, and lung.
In 2011, Dr. Allison’s efforts led to the approval of ipilimumab (Yervoy) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as the first immunotherapy for metastatic melanoma. The treatment exceeded all expectations, with around 20% of patients still alive 10 years later.
Dr. Allison’s insights into immunotherapy first transformed the therapeutic landscape in the mid-1990s, when he uncovered the key immune checkpoint mechanism, cytotoxic T-lymphocyte–associated protein 4. Clinical trials initiated in 2001 not only proved Dr. Allison’s research revolutionary, but also inspired many other researchers to start searching for new immune system checkpoints, now making immunotherapy one of the most active areas in oncology.
Dr. Allison, however, is the first to warn that immunotherapy is no one-stop solution: “We’re not going to be able to cure all cancers,” he admits. “But I think in the future, immunotherapy will be a part of all cancer treatments, in combination with chemotherapy or radiation. I am optimistic we will learn the right things to put together to cure a majority of patients, maybe even reaching from 60% or 90% of cases in some kinds of cancers.” Dr. Allison insists on the need for more basic research.
On the Personal Side
Dr. Allison remarks on the rare privilege of meeting patients who have benefited directly from his work: “One of the greatest moments of my life was seeing a woman who had been told she was going to be dead in a few months, and over 15 years later, she is still alive and has two children. That motivates me to do all I can to get these therapies to work better. It’s pretty rare for a basic scientist to get to see the application of [his or her] findings. I was lucky enough to have that experience.”
Dr. Allison is now working with his wife and colleague at MD Anderson, Padmanee Sharma, on what they refer to as the “Immunotherapy Platform,” which includes over a hundred clinical trials to test the efficacy of various immunotherapy treatments. ■