James P. Allison, Ph.D., the director of the Cancer Research Institute Scientific Advisory Council and a leader of the CRI-SU2C Cancer Immunology Translational Research Dream Team, has just been named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the world for 2017.
Dr. Allison, who serves as the chair of immunology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, was honored in the category of “Titan” for his pioneering work in cancer immunology that led to the first FDA-approved checkpoint immunotherapy and ushered in today’s ongoing revolution in cancer treatment.
His initial breakthroughs in the lab came in the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when many still doubted that the immune system would ever play an important role in cancer treatment. Fast forward two decades, and immunotherapy—which empowers patients’ own immune systems to help them eliminate tumors—has entirely transformed the way we treat cancer.
Since 2011, when the FDA approved ipilimumab (Yervoy®) for the treatment of advanced metastatic melanoma, there have been over a dozen other immunotherapy approvals. In total, over 100,000 patients have already received immunotherapy, and its benefits have been so significant that last year the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) named it the 2016 Advance of the Year. In 2017, ASCO doubled down on immunotherapy’s impact and named it the Advance of the Year again, highlighting the ever-improving effectiveness of immune-based approaches. The esteemed journal Science also named immunotherapy their Breakthrough of the Year in 2013.
Interestingly, Dr. Allison didn’t initially set out to cure cancer. He just wanted to better understand how the immune system works, specifically the T cells that seek out and destroy threats—including bacteria, virus-infected cells, and even cancer—throughout our bodies. He first identified the T cell receptor (TCR) that these immune cells use to identify and bind to their targets. Then he identified two other important molecules that interact with the TCR and influence T cell activity. The CD28 molecule serves as a gas pedal or “on” switch for T cells, while CTLA-4 serves as a brake or “off” switch.
While few would have thought that any of these molecules could be exploited for therapeutic value, Dr. Allison, like all of humanity’s greatest scientific visionaries, immediately recognized the importance of this nugget mined from nature. After showing that blocking CTLA-4 (“releasing the brakes” of the T cells) could successfully eliminate tumors in mice, he became determined to take these insights out of the lab and into the clinic, where he hoped they could be used to save people’s lives.
Dr. Allison’s impact on modern medicine cannot be understated. In addition to the lives that have been saved by the immunotherapy that he developed, his conceptual contributions paved the way for the current immunotherapy revolution. Furthermore, his continued contributions to the field of cancer immunotherapy ensure that every day we are getting closer and closer to a future immune to cancer.
For those reasons, we can’t think of anyone more qualified to be honored in the TIME 100. Congratulations, Dr. Allison!