AUSTIN, Texas — James P. Allison, a world-renowned pioneer of cancer immunotherapy, has been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine jointly with Tasuku Honjo “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”
Allison, who received his bachelor’s degree in 1969 and doctorate in 1973 in biological science at The University of Texas at Austin, is chair of immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Honjo is a professor at Kyoto University where he is deputy director general of the Institute for Advanced Study.
Cancer immunotherapy seeks to train the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells the same way it already goes after bacteria and viruses.
For decades, Allison has studied how certain immune cells in our bodies, called T-cells, work. T-cells act like armed sentries in your bloodstream: They identify and wipe out foreign invaders, including bacteria and viruses. Allison discovered that one molecule in T-cells, called CTLA-4, acts as a kind of brake. Some cancers defend themselves from our immune systems by activating these brakes.
Work in his lab led to the development of ipilimumab, an antibody to human CTLA-4 and the first immune checkpoint blockade therapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Since it went on the market in 2011, thousands of skin cancer patients have taken ipilimumab, and more than 1 in 5 have had a complete remission, a dramatic improvement over other treatments.
“I was doing basic science to do basic science, but you know, I had the good opportunity to see it develop into something that actually does people good,” Allison has said. “That’s gratifying.”
Allison is currently involved in clinical trials that combine his anti-cancer drug with a second one that helps T-cells go after cancer. Metastatic melanoma patients started receiving this combined therapy more than three years ago, and so far, about 3 in 5 are still alive.
“I’m very proud to congratulate UT Distinguished Alumnus Jim Allison on receiving the Nobel Prize in medicine,” said Gregory L. Fenves, president of UT Austin. “Jim’s research on new ways to fight cancer has saved countless lives and turned once untreatable diagnoses into ones that are now treatable and beatable. He’s provided hope to many patients and their families. His work has been heroic and he richly deserves the Nobel Prize.”
Allison is one of the world’s most renowned scientists. He is a member of the National Academies of Science and Medicine. Among many other honors, he received the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Canada Gairdner International Award and the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.
The Nobels are considered to be among the most prestigious prizes in the world and have been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace since 1901 by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. Allison will receive a medal, cash prize and diploma at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.
It is the second consecutive year that a UT Austin alum has won arguably the world’s most prestigious prize in medicine or physiology. Michael W. Young, one of last year’s winners in the same category, took the prize for his research into circadian rhythms.
Both Allison and Young are inductees in UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences Hall of Honor.