Winning a Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of scientific achievement. Recently, Dr. James Allison, who was a post-doctorate fellow at Scripps Research from 1974 to 1977, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He shares the prize with Tasaku Honjo of Japan.
The research that earned Dr. Allison the Nobel Prize is remarkable. It uses the human immune system to fight cancer.
A Switch from Biochemistry to Immunology
When Dr. Allison first arrived at Scripps Research, he was assigned to work as a biochemist. However, his real passion was immunology. Making the switch was what allowed him to make his breakthrough with the immune system.
Together with another post-doctorate fellow, Dr. Allison conducted experiments that looked at how the human immune system recognizes tumors. In a 2016 interview with Clinical Investigation, Allison remembered, “We submitted it to Nature, and it was published, we got a lot of notoriety for that.”
In the world of medical research, notoriety is essential because it helps researchers find jobs and finance their experiments and studies. In Dr. Allison’s case, the study in Nature led to a post at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
After his stint in Texas, Dr. Allison spent nearly 20 years at UC Berkeley, where he continued his work and produced some of his most influential research. Today, he is back at MD Anderson, where he serves as the chief of immunology.
The Personal Becomes Professional
Cancer isn’t just a hypothetical enemy to James Allison. It’s had a big impact on his personal life, as well. When he was only 11 years old, Allison’s mother, Constance, died of lymphoma. And then, in 2005, his brother died of prostate cancer.
It was his 8th grade math teacher who inspired Allison to pursue a career in science. He earned his B.S. in microbiology from the University of Texas in Austin, and his PhD from the same school in 1973.
Given his history with cancer, it’s not surprising that he turned his attention to finding a cure for the disease. The research that earned him the Nobel Prize focused on CTLA-4, a molecule that has an inhibitory effect on T-cells.
In 1996. Dr. Allison became the first scientist to prove that introducing an antibody blockade could essentially put the brakes on CTLA-4, allowing the T-cells to attack a tumor more effectively. The concept of blocking T-cell inhibitory pathways is known as immune checkpoint therapy.
Allison and Honjo share the Nobel Prize because Honjo’s parallel research discovered an important protein on immune cells that also acts as a brake. Both men’s work has led to the development of anti-cancer drugs.
Dr. Allison’s love of immunology is something that shines through in his personal life, too. In his spare time, he plays harmonica in a band whose members are all immunologists or oncologists. Their name is The Checkpoints.
Winning any Nobel Prize is a tremendous honor. With this year’s award. Dr. Allison joins two other Scripps scientists: Barry Sharpless, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2001, and Bruce Beutler, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology in medicine in 2011 for his work in immunology.
Meet Jim Allison: