James Allison, PhD, Named One of TIME ’s 100 Most Influential People in 2017

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We’re in the early days of successful cancer immunotherapy. Our next step is to extend these treatments to benefit more patients, and our platform is intensely focused on making that a reality.
— James Allison, PhD

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The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Chair of Immunology, James Allison, PhD—whose pivotal insight to attack cancer by treating the immune system instead of the tumor revived cancer immunotherapy—has been named to the 2017 TIME 100 Most Influential People. His approach launched a completely new way to treat cancer, improving patient outcomes and transforming the course of cancer research.

The list, now in its 14th year, recognizes the world’s most influential individuals. As TIME Editor-in-Chief, Nancy Gibbs, has said of the list: “Each year our TIME 100 list lets us step back and measure the forces that move us…. One way or another they each embody a breakthrough: they broke the rules, broke the record, broke the silence, broke the boundaries to reveal what we’re capable of.”

Dr. Allison’s breakthrough, stemming from his basic science research, liberates the immune system to find and destroy cancer cells, an approach called immune checkpoint blockade. This new class of drugs is saving the lives of significant numbers of patients with a variety of advanced cancers.

“I’m grateful to TIME for recognizing the increasing importance of immunotherapy as a new pillar of cancer treatment,” said Dr. Allison, who also is Executive Director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson. “We’re in the early days of successful cancer immunotherapy. Our next step is to extend these treatments to benefit more patients, and our platform is intensely focused on making that a reality.”

MD Anderson’s Immunotherapy Platform analyzes blood samples and tumor biopsies taken before, during, and after treatment to better understand response and resistance to treatment. The platform is part of the institution’s Moon Shots Program, which is designed to harness scientific knowledge and develop new technologies that will dramatically reduce cancer deaths through prevention, early detection, and treatment.

Early Days of Research

Dr. Allison’s curiosity-driven research, funded in the early days by the National Institutes of Health, led to a life-saving treatment approved for six late-stage cancers and in hundreds of clinical trials for additional cancers and earlier stages of disease.

“It is important to note that immune checkpoint blockade came from understanding the basic science of the immune system,” Dr. Allison said. “I didn’t set out as a young scientist to develop cancer therapies but to understand T cells, these amazing cells that travel our bodies to protect us from disease.”

Dr. Allison’s research in T cells began during his first stay at MD Anderson in the 1970s and 1980s, extending to other institutions before he returned to MD Anderson in 2012 to establish the platform.

He was co-discoverer of the function of a protein on T cells that acts as a brake, shutting down the immune response. His pivotal idea was to block the brake on the T cell, called the cytotoxic T-lymphocyte–associated protein 4 (CTLA-4), with an antibody, unleashing the T cells to attack cancer cells. After demonstrating this approach in mouse models of human cancer, Dr. Allison advocated taking the approach to human clinical trials, which led to the development of ipilimumab (Yervoy).

Birth of Checkpoint Blockade

Ipilumumab was approved for advanced melanoma by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011, after it became the first drug ever shown in a clinical trial to extend the lives of people with metastatic melanoma. Follow-up studies showed that 22% of patients treated with the drug in clinical trials survived 10 years or longer, unprecedented results for the disease.

After Dr. Allison’s research and the development of ipilimumab created the field of checkpoint blockade, other drugs were developed to block another brake on T cells called the programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1), which have been approved for melanoma; Hodgkin lymphoma; and lung, kidney, bladder, and head and neck cancers.

“The next challenge is to understand who benefits from treatment, and who doesn’t, and develop rational combination therapies to help those who don’t,” Dr. Allison said. “There are many possible combinations—with other immunotherapies, targeted therapies, chemotherapies, radiation—and basic science will be important to help us more efficiently sort out these options.”

Titles and Honors

Dr. Allison additionally holds the Vivian L. Smith Distinguished Chair in Immunology and is Director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at MD Anderson.

He has won a number of honors in recent years, including the 2015 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, and the 2013 American Association for Cancer Research–Cancer Research Institute Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine and a fellow of the American Association for Cancer Research Academy, the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. ■