Adding to his already hefty collection of accolades, CRI’s own James P. Allison, Ph.D., last week was awarded the 2014 Szent-Györgyi Prize by the National Foundation for Cancer Research. Named after Albert Szent-Györgyi, M.D., Ph.D., whose work on vitamin C earned him the 1937 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, the prize recognizes the work of researchers who have made outstanding contributions to our understanding of cancer. It has been awarded annually since 2006.
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. 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’s work has already saved numerous lives and shines a bright light on a future direction of oncology," said Alex Matter, M.D., who won the 2013 Szent-Györgyi Prize for his work on the cancer drug Gleevec, and who chaired this year’s prize selection committee.
The prize is $25,000, and the recipient will also chair next year’s prize committee.
“Ongoing recognition of checkpoint blockade immunotherapy for cancer reflects the early success and great potential of treating the immune system, rather than the tumor, to destroy cancer.”
“The Szent-Györgyi Prize is a wonderful honor and I’m gratified to receive this recognition by the NFCR, a foundation that does so much to advance cancer research,” Allison said. “Ongoing recognition of checkpoint blockade immunotherapy for cancer reflects the early success and great potential of treating the immune system, rather than the tumor, to destroy cancer.”
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.
“Jim is a stellar scientist whose contributions to cancer immunology really have changed the direction of the field,” says Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., CEO and director of scientific affairs at CRI. “We knew he was the best person to push the field forward and to direct CRI’s strategic priorities and growth in the years ahead, and that’s why he was selected as the director of our Scientific Advisory Council back in 2011. We are gratified to see both Jim and the field finally getting the recognition they deserve.”
In addition to the Szent-Györgyi Prize, 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, and the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. 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.