The work: Allison’s research has focused on T cell biology. T cells are white blood cells that scan our bodies for cellular abnormalities and infections. Allison’s work discovered the receptor these cells use to recognize and bind to antigens for attack. Immunologists have long wondered why the immune system doesn’t fight off cancer cells itself and Allison discovered the first ‘blocker’ that blocks the immune system from doing so. This discovery was the immune checkpoint molecule called CTLA-4, which turns off T cells before they can respond to tumors they’ve been set to destroy. Allison developed an antibody to block CTLA-4, freeing T cells to attack tumors, and leading to the development of the drug ipilimumab. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ipilimumab (Yervoy®) for treatment of metastatic melanoma in 2011.
The impact: Allison’s concept has opened a new field of cancer therapy, immune checkpoint blockade, and many cancer patients are alive today because of his vision. Immune checkpoint blockade treats the immune system instead of the tumor which provides the option to work across other cancers. In addition to melanoma, ipilimumab has been effective in clinical trials against prostate, kidney, lung and ovarian cancers.
Dr. Allison is a professor and chair of the Department of Immunology, executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform and deputy director of the David H. Koch Center for Applied Research of Genitourinary Cancers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. A recent addition to MD Anderson in November 2012, Dr. Allison is building a team of clinicians and physician-scientists to accelerate the movement of immune-based combinatorial therapies into clinical trials. Since joining us, he has already received funding from Stand Up to Cancer and the Cancer Research Institute (SU2C/CRI) to lead a Dream Team in Translational Immunology Research with the aim of facilitating clinical development of new and improved forms of cancer immunotherapy.
Dr. Allison received a B.S. in microbiology and a Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of Texas at Austin, then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Molecular Immunology at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in California. He began his academic career as an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Texas, Science Park–Research Division in Smithville, Texas, and quickly achieved the rank of professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Division of Immunology at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Allison was recruited to MD Anderson from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he had been the chair of the Immunology Program, the attending immunologist and director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Immunotherapy, and a professor at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University since 2004.
Dr. Allison has more than 260 publications, including articles in Nature, Science, Cell, Immunity, Cancer Cell and Blood. He has received numerous awards in recognition of his seminal work, including the Dana Foundation Award in Human Immunology Research (2008), the Richard V. Smalley, M.D. Memorial Lectureship Award (2010), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Immunologists (2011), the Roche Award for Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy (2011), the Novartis Prize for Clinical Immunology (2013), and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2013).