As longtime supporters of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, it gives us a sense of pride and accomplishment to see the great work of our very own Dr. Jim Allison recognized with the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine. This is the first such prize awarded to an MD Anderson scientist, and we couldn’t imagine a person more deserving of this recognition. Allison’s work to revolutionize cancer treatment by determining how to disengage the brakes that prevent the immune system from attacking a cancer is a seminal moment in our history. His work has led treatments that are having an incredible impact on patient lives.
Sharon, a young mother of two who was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, was one of the first patients to try the immunotherapy drug Allison discovered, an altogether new class of drugs called checkpoint inhibitors. Sharon’s doctor told her about the study and, knowing the limited treatment options for this often deadly disease and in the hopes of living long enough to see her son graduate from high school, Sharon agreed to enroll. The drug worked! Her tumors were completely gone within six months, and, 15 years later, Sharon is still alive.
Where some see a miracle, we see a healer and hero. Allison’s hard work, dedication and brilliant insights have benefited and saved the lives many patients just like Sharon.
Allison, who grew up in the small South Texas town of Alice outside Corpus Christi, earned his undergraduate degree and doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. He began his career at MD Anderson and returned in 2012 when he was recruited by Ron DePinho, Allison’s colleague and friend of 40 years. DePinho, MD Anderson’s fourth president, knew Allison’s potential to do great things. So, tapping the institution’s STARs program and the specific authority granted by the UT System Board of Regents in 2004 to recruit top faculty and researchers to Texas, DePinho brought Allison to MD Anderson. Of course, no one predict that Allison would one day win a Nobel Prize, everyone understood his work would be important in the fight against cancer. To this day, the STARs program remains critical to recruiting top talent and is a key driver of future successes in Texas.
It is our hope that Allison’s recognition is just the beginning for MD Anderson and the path forward for immunotherapy. Allison’s Nobel Prize, along with his his ongoing research, is sure over the coming decades to help Houston’s world-renown cancer center build on the leadership of DePinho and that of Peter Pisters, who took over as MD Anderson president last December. MD Anderson will to continue to provide excellent patient care, be on the cutting edge of clinical trials, continue to improve basic research programs, enhance its leading academic drug development program and further expand MD Anderson’s global network.
We know Allison has more work to do on immunotherapy. The academic community needs to better understand it and how it can help more patients, including with strategies to mitigate and manage toxicity and by developing the right combinations of therapy for the best response.
We look forward to what’s next from the brilliant mind of Jim Allison. But for now, it’s important to recognize and applaud his efforts in paving the way forward. We applaud the Nobel Prize committee for selecting Jim Allison, a wonderful person and, in case you don’t know, a pretty mean harmonica player. Because of Allison, we hope one day Sharon’s story will not be so rare, but rather it will be the everyday story of how we treat and defeat cancer.
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