James P. Allison, PhD, Receives 2014 Canada Gairdner International Award

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James P. Allison, PhD

The Gairdner Foundation of Canada has named James P. Allison, PhD, for one of its 2014 Canada Gairdner International Awards. Dr. Allison is Chair and Professor of Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

The honor, announced recently by the Gairdner Foundation, recognizes Dr. Allison’s research in T-cell biology that led to his discovery of a unique treatment that frees the immune system to attack cancer.

“Dr. 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,” the Foundation noted in its ­announcement.

Dr. Allison discovered that a molecule on T cells turns off an immune attack on cancer before those white blood cells, primed to kill the tumor, can complete their work. He created an antibody to block this off switch and prolong immune response that became the first drug to increase survival of people with late-stage melanoma.

The drug, ipilimumab (Yervoy), was approved by FDA for patients with metastatic or surgically unremovable melanoma in 2011.

Potential of Immunotherapy Just Being Realized

“By creating this brilliant approach that treats the immune system rather than the tumor, Jim Allison opened a completely new avenue for treating all cancers that’s the most exciting and promising area of cancer research today,” said Ronald A. DePinho, MD, President of MD Anderson.

“The potential of cancer immunotherapy is just beginning to be realized, and Jim is working to expand and hone this approach as Executive Director of MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform,” Dr. DePinho said.

“Recognition by the Gairdner Foundation is gratifying for any scientist,” said Dr. Allison. “It’s also a boost for the field of immunotherapy as we continue to develop new drugs and combinations that will more effectively unleash the immune system on cancer.”

Dr. Allison was recruited to MD Anderson in 2012 from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to build an immunotherapy platform—infrastructure, technology or expertise—to support translational and clinical cancer research at MD Anderson. The platform also supports MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program, an ambitious effort to dramatically reduce cancer deaths, starting with six moon shots that target eight cancers (see page 115 for an interview with Dr. DePinho about the Moon Shots ­Program). 

Dr. Allison and seven other honorees will receive their awards and a $100,000 CDN prize to support their research in Toronto on Oct. 30. ■