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2014 Award for Distinguished Research in Biomedical Sciences

James P. Allison, Ph.D., The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

James P Allison

Growing up in Alice, Texas, James P. Allison, Ph.D., was a fiercely inquisitive and challenging student—often arguing with his teachers on creationism. Fortunately, his natural inclinations were nurtured and he grew up to be a skilled scientist whose staunch determination to seek answers has revolutionized cancer treatment.

“Jim’s work has provided insight on new pathways that led to the development of an entire new class of cancer immunotherapy agents,” says Owen Witte, M.D., investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Allison’s interest in T cells led him to a series of remarkable discoveries—first identifying the protein structure of T cells, then identifying why they were effective in fighting viruses but powerless against tumors. In the 1990s, while on faculty at University of California, Berkeley, he began examining CTLA-4, which turned out to be the molecule that inhibited T cells. When Dr. Allison tested blocking CTLA-4 in mice, their revved-up immune systems began to reject the tumors, a discovery he published in 1996. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved anti-CTLA-4 as standard therapy for treating patients with melanoma. Today, Dr. Allison’s therapy is being investigated as potentially effective in other cancers, such as lung, colon, kidney, breast, and prostate.

For Dr. Allison, his investigation into cancer is personal. His mother died of lymphoma when he was 11, he lost uncles to cancer, and in 2005, his brother died of prostate cancer, a disease Dr. Allison himself survived. His tenacity in discovering how science benefits the patient makes him a highly sought-after researcher.

In 2012, when Dr. Allison joined MD Anderson Cancer Center as chairman of the Department of Immunology, President Ronald DePinho, M.D., said, “Dr. Allison embodies an important principle for us. It’s not just about doing elegant science, although that’s certainly the case here. It doesn’t count unless it has a meaningful impact on the well-being of our patients. That’s the bottom line.”

Prior to MD Anderson, Dr. Allison was the David H. Koch Chair in Immunologic Studies at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Among his many accolades are the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, The Economist’s Innovations Award in Bioscience, the Szent-Gyӧrgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research from the National Foundation for Cancer Research, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Immunologists.

Despite well-deserved praise, Dr. Allison insists it remains secondary motivation. “It’s not about the awards, it’s about the difference made in people’s lives,” he said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

Dr. Allison received his B.S. in microbiology and his Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of Texas at Austin. He completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation.

Watch the video spotlight on Dr. Allison here.

More about Dr. Allison

Award for Distinguished Research in the Biomedical Sciences

This award recognizes outstanding clinical or laboratory research conducted by a medical school faculty member.