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Alum’s Revolutionary Discovery Is Changing Cancer Treatment

Alum’s Revolutionary Discovery Is Changing Cancer Treatment

James P. Allison (B.A. '69, Ph.D. '73) was a key source for a groundbreaking series of stories in the New York Times about immunotherapy cancer treatment.

Credit: Scott Dalton

Allison is credited for his development of the first checkpoint inhibitor, Yervoy—a drug that frees immune cells to fight cancer by blocking a mechanism that cancer uses to shut down the immune system. This drug, approved for advanced melanoma in 2011, is used in immunotherapy cancer treatment.

Allison spent most of his career studying immunology, particularly the study of T-cells. As noted in the New York Times article, Allison and Jeffrey Bluestone of the University of California, San Francisco revolutionized cancer treatment by proving that a molecule widely believed to activate the immune system actually shut it down:

The molecule was a protein on the surface of T-cells — a crucial checkpoint — and it was nature's way of subduing the T-cells, apparently to dial back their ferocious activity and prevent them from attacking a person's own tissue. Cancer cells can sometimes lock onto checkpoints, disabling the T-cells.

Dr. Allison wondered if it might be possible to block the checkpoint and launch the T-cells against cancer. He and a graduate student, Matthew Krummel, developed an antibody — a molecule made by certain cells of the immune system — that would stick to the checkpoint and block it. When the researchers, including Dana Leach, a postdoctoral fellow, gave the antibody to mice with cancer, tumors vanished.

Recalling those first tests in mice, Dr. Allison said it was astounding to see the cancers shrink and disappear. Veterinarians thought the mice had contracted an infection or a skin disease. But the sores that worried the vets were actually tumors that were ulcerating and rotting away under assault by T-cells.

Allison also told The New York Times the discoveries that led to this drug came from years of basic research in immunology and that without support for this kind of research, "progress, if any, will be incremental, not a big leap."

His current research focuses on understanding how and why checkpoint inhibitors work in some patients and not others. He has won numerous awards and is considered a candidate for a future Nobel Prize,  as he was the most recent winner of the prestigious Lasker Award for clinical medical research, sometimes called the "pre-Nobel Prize." To read the full New York Times article, click here.

Read more about the College of Natural Sciences alum and his work in the Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News.

Allison's alma mater also produces world-changing basic research. To learn about making an investment in UT Austin research, including cancer research on campus, please contact the College of Natural Sciences' Office of Development at 512-471-3299 or cnsgiving@austin.utexas.edu.

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Saturday, 10 December 2022

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