Houston scientist Jim Allison wins Nobel

The Houston scientist whose pioneering research has revolutionized cancer treatment was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine Monday.

Dr. Jim Allison, MD Anderson Cancer Center’s chairman of immunology, and Japan’s Tasuku Honjo received the prize for research that’s led to a class of drugs that have cured patients whose disease was considered hopeless. The research has finally realized the tantalizing promise of immunotherapy, which is now taking its place alongside surgery, radiation and chemotherapy as a pillar of cancer treatment. Immunotherapy unleashes the immune system to attack tumors.

“Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer,” the Nobel committee wrote. “The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer.”

The prize is the first ever Nobel given for cancer therapy, the committee told Allison.

A shout out to patients

At a press conference Monday, Allison said he’s in “a sort of state of shock” at winning the Nobel, then added, “I’d like to just give a shout-out to all the patients out there who are suffering from cancer to let them know that we are making progress now.”

Allison told the Chronicle he’d tuned out the buzz building before Monday’s announcement that this might be the year. “I get apprehensive, try to hide,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about the possibility.”

Allison, 70, showed a recently discovered protein known as CTLA-4 acts as a brake to rein in the immune system, then developed a drug, Yervoy, to release it to destroy cancer cells. Honjo discovered PD-1, another protein expressed on the surface of T-cells that acts as a brake.

At the time of Allison’s discovery, most scientists thought CTLA-4 activated T cells, the foot soldiers of the immune system.

Drugs that remove the brake, a class known as checkpoint inhibitors, only work in some cancers and patients, but in those it does, it produces lasting benefits not seen with chemotherapy and radiation. It’s particularly effective in lung cancer and melanoma, both brutal diseases, and it is currently the subject of thousands of clinical trials, typically in combination with other therapies, to attempt to extend its benefits to more people.

Former President Jimmy Carter is the best known beneficiary. Carter, 93, initially said he felt he “had just a few weeks left” after he was diagnosed with melanoma that had spread to his brain in August 2015, but is cancer free after treatment with a checkpoint inhibitor.

Celebrating in New York

Allison was asleep when the Nobel was announced early Monday morning in Stockholm. He got the news by phone not from the Nobel committee but from his son watching online. Allison was in New York for a meeting of immunology researchers.

Friends and colleagues bearing bottles of Champagne greeted him at his hotel room door at 6 a.m. EDT Monday. He and his wife, Dr. Pam Sharma, also an immunologist, were still in their pajamas at the time, he said.

The congratulations that poured in included one from former Vice President Joe Biden, who spent time at MD Anderson in 2013 when his son Beau was diagnosed and received treatment for brain cancer at the elite Houston hospital. Biden’s time in Houston laid the seeds for the Obama administration’s Cancer Moonshot initiative to accelerate progress against the deadly disease. Beau Biden, attorney general of Delaware, died in 2015.

“I just wanted to congratulate you and thank you for everything you’ve done,” the former vice president said during a phone call to Allison which was caught on video and tweeted out by former MD Anderson President Dr. Ron DePinho. “I am so happy for you, and you deserve the recognition. You’re going to save an awful lot of lives.”

DePinho, who recruited Allison back to MD Anderson in 2012 after a 25-year absence, called Allison “the father of modern immunology.” Allison credited DePinho with boosting the field at MD Anderson, like making immunotherapy one of the linchpins of the center’s Cancer Moon Shots initiative a few years before the federal program.

Life-saving treatment

Cancer immunotherapy has been a longtime dream, dating back to the late 19th century. But a series of high-profile flops and disappointments in the latter part of the 20th century made the field seem a lost cause. The discovery of immune system brakes not only led to life-saving checkpoint inhibitor drugs, they breathed new life into other types of immunotherapies, now under re-investigation, many in conjunction with checkpoint inhibitors.

“Jim Allison’s accomplishments on behalf of patients cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Peter Pisters, MD Anderson’s current president. “His research has led to life-saving treatments for people who otherwise would have little hope. The significance of immunotherapy as a form of cancer treatment will be felt for generations to come.”

Allison started his career at MD Anderson in 1977, one of the first employees of a new basic science research center located in Smithville. He returned, in November 2012, with the help of a big-time grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the state’s taxpayer-funded $3 billion assault on the deadly disease.

He made his landmark discoveries about the immune system at the University of California at Berkeley, then worked with clinicians at Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer in New York to expedite Yervoy’s use in patients. Since he was lured back to MD Anderson, he’s led efforts to continue unlocking the mysteries of immune system brakes and figure out ways to make checkpoint inhibitors effective in more patients.

‘As good as it gets’

Allison’s most poignant congratulations Monday came from former patients, particularly two who are probably Yervoy’s greatest success stories. Their course of disease seemed a death sentence when they tried the experimental drug in the first half of the 2000s, among its first patients.

“Today, I wish I could recreate that day that we first met,” emailed Sharon Belvin, then a Stage IV melanoma patient, now a mother of three and fitness trainer.

“I want to walk into the room you’re in and give you the biggest hug ever and more than likely everyone would be in tears,” told Allison. “You changed my world and made my life possible. The Nobel Peace Prize isn’t enough in my book but it sure is a nice start!!”

Sharon Vener, now 17 years out from treatment for melanoma that had spread to her lungs and liver, said she was shaking and crying all day Monday after hearing Allison had won the Nobel Prize.

“The tears of gratitude are flowing so hard, I can barely see the letters on my little screen!” she wrote her UCLA doctor in an email that she asked him to relay to Allison.

“That Jim has been recognized worldwide for immunotherapy is so important,” Vener said, “so that other patients now hopefully will find doctors in other places who will now realize that this is a truly viable therapy for many diseases.”

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