Cancer immunologist told to ‘Give up’ on his groundbreaking research before winning the Nobel Prize

Immunologist who claimed Nobel Prize for cancer cure called ‘foolish’ for his ambitious work in the field.

  • Dr. James Allison won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine 2018 for his cancer cure research. 
  • Despite its success, Dr. Allison’s research was faced with severe disbelief by fellow scientists.
  • Skeptics told the immunologist that his idea is “foolish” and he should “give up.”

Who is Dr. James Allison?

Credits: Elizabeth Conley for Quanta Magazine

Dr. James Allison is one of the biggest figures in immunology. He also has a remarkable influence at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. There, he is Regental Professor and Chair of the Department of Immunology, the Olga Keith Wiess Distinguished University Chair for Cancer Research, Director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Research, and the Executive Director of the Immunotherapy Platform. 

The eminent immunologist has spent years studying the regulation of T-cell responses in detail and developing strategies for cancer immunotherapy.

In 2018, Dr. Allison shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Dr. Tasuku Honjo, “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.” However, before winning the award, other oncology researchers didn’t believe in his work and thought he was foolish instead.

Why did Dr. Allison’s colleagues treat his research with skepticism?

While pursuing his ambition to establish successful cancer immunotherapy, Dr. Allison used to hear things like: “This is never gonna work.” and “Give up!”

At the time, during the 1970s and 1980s, the knowledge scientists had about T-cells was very little, so they couldn’t see the true potential in his work. There were many trials followed by failures in the field, which is why no one believed Dr. Allison would succeed. Nevertheless, the disbelief he was facing didn’t stop him from working hard on developing his breakthrough strategies.

Credits: Elizabeth Conley for Quanta Magazine

As a matter of fact, the scientist was never on the hunt for a cure for cancer. What his research was about is how the immune system operates. However, in the 1990s his family history with the disease took a toll on the course of his career. That was also the period when he made an exceptional discovery – a way to use the body’s own immune system to detect and kill cancer cells.

In an interview with Wall Street Journal, Dr. Allison said:

“We were treating the immune system, not the cancer. And, so, one of the applications of that, of course, is that this should work with just all kinds of cancer. We just need to get the immune system to deal with it as we would with any virus.”

When did the award-winning research begin?

While the immunologist was working at Berkeley’s University of California, he started studying a certain type of molecule: a protein receptor called CTLA-4. It represents a segment that is only present on T-cell surfaces. But the scientist was a little ahead of his time, as, at the time, it was believed that this protein receptor serves as an ‘on’ switch, while it was exactly the opposite. Thankfully, he was bright enough to recognize CTLA-4’s actual purpose.

As it turned out, the molecule blocks natural immune responses. Therefore, it serves as a checkpoint that downregulates the usual immune system performance.

Knowing that, in 1996, Dr. Allison made a significant breakthrough in cancer and immunology research. He created an antibody that unlocks the immune system’s potential to kill cancer cells. His team tested it on mice that had cancers and they were amazed by the results – tumors started to disappear.

Credits: Quanta Magazine / YouTube

Unfortunately, the major discovery was not welcomed by his fellow oncologists. As a result, many companies refused to work with Dr. Allison for beginning testing it on humans. However, he never stopped believing in his work for a second and continued unraveling its potential through the years.

Eventually, a company owned by Bristol-Myers Squibb agreed to back up Dr. Allison’s drug, also known as Ipi. They tested it on advanced melanoma patients in the early 2000s. One of them was Sharon Venter, a mother-of-two, who had a large tumor attached to her lungs and heart. The novel drug successfully blocked Venter’s disease, and today she is still grateful for Dr. Allison’s work that saved her life.

Thankfully, Dr. Allison’s research was eventually recognized by the Nobel Foundation.

In 2018, the Nobel Foundation awarded Dr. James Allison with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He shared the prize with Dr. Tasuku Honjo.

Apart from the Nobel Prize, Dr. Allison has a long list of awards for taking a step forward in cancer immunology, including Jacob Heskel Gabbay Award for Biotechnology and Medicine, Novartis Prize for Clinical Immunology, Balzan Prize for Immunological Approaches in Cancer Therapy, and many others.

All the years of hard work and all the awards Dr. Allison obtained prove that he is a remarkable figure in his field. Even today, at 72-years-old, he continues to dedicate his work to helping people around the world who struggle with the consequences of the deadly disease.

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