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CRI’s James Allison Wins Canada Gairdner Award

March 31, 2014 | Matthew Tontonoz

CRI Scientific Advisory Council director James P. Allison, Ph.D., is a recipient of the 2014 Canada Gairdner Award. Canada’s only international scientific prize, the prestigious Gairdner Award is given annually to scientists who have made original—often revolutionary—contributions to medicine. Each award is valued at $100,000 CDN.            

Dr. Allison is being recognized for his work leading to the creation of the first checkpoint blockade antibody, ipilimumab, which was approved by the FDA in 2011 for the treatment of metastatic melanoma, and which is now being tested in other cancers including lung and renal cancer. Ipilimumab is a monoclonal antibody that blocks a molecule on T cells called CTLA-4, which serves as the T cell’s brake system. By “taking the brakes off” the immune response, ipilimumab enables a more powerful anti-cancer response.

Dr. Allison has been working on T cell biology for more than 30 years. In the early 1980s, as a young investigator at The University of Texas, Allison was the first to identify the T cell receptor—the protein on the cell surface that binds to antigen and functions as a T cell's ignition switch. A few years later, in 1992, while a professor at UC-Berkeley, he showed that a molecule called CD28 functions as the T cell's gas pedal. Then, in 1995, when no one else was even thinking there would be such a thing, he identified the T cell's brakes, in the process opening up a whole new vista in cancer treatment.

In addition to the Gairdner Award, Dr. Allison is the recipient of the 2005 William B. Coley Award, the inaugural AACR-CRI Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology, the 2013 Innovations Award for Bioscience from the Economist magazine, the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, and the 2014 Szent-Györgyi Prize. He is currently chairman of immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and serves as director of CRI’s Scientific Advisory Council.

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