James P. Allison

Photo of James P. Allison
James P. Allison
  • From:

    University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center │ Houston, Texas

  • Year:

    2019

  • Subject:

    Life Science

  • Award:

    Benjamin Franklin Medal

  • Citation:

    For furthering our understanding of the body’s immune system, and for conceiving and developing a new therapeutic approach that uses the immune system to successfully treat cancer.

A cure for cancer. Few possibilities can so swiftly unbridle humanity of its preoccupations. Jim Allison has our attention. Allison effects the timbre of a mellow, country-band harmonica player who performed on stage with Willie Nelson. And on the weekends he is that. The rest of the time, he’s a Nobel Prize-winning researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where treatments based on his discoveries regularly save lives. Even his easy going demeanor cracks with emotion when recounting one of his first cancer patients, a 22-year-old woman with more than 30 tumors in her lungs, brain, and skin. She was hospice bound, but is now cancer-free. But Allison is not an oncologist. He’s an immunologist.Cancer cells routinely arise in your body. However, immune system cells called T cells usually neutralize them before they turn into masses. But sometimes the immune system falls behind. The research Allison started in the late 1980s explained this phenomenon by uncovering a mechanism by which the body naturally blocks its cancer-killing T cells. Allison then discovered a way to chemically inhibit that suppression, enabling the body to produce a surge of T cells that work to eliminate the cancer. Allison’s groundbreaking research directly led to ipilimumab, an injectable drug with a high success rate in curing several common cancers, including melanoma, even at end stages. But Allison believes immunotherapy can do even more. He’s currently researching the possibility of enhanced immunotherapy drugs capable of curing a broad spectrum of cancers, hopeful for a future when second chances happen without the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation or the invasive surgeries that we rely on today.