Texas native Jim Allison was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this week for developing an "entirely new principle for cancer therapy" that unleashes a patient's immune system to attack tumors.
Allison, a professor at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and a mean blues harmonica player, developed the groundbreaking cancer treatment known as "immune checkpoint therapy" along with fellow Nobelist Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University.
The Nobel has been awarded for cancer research in the past, but this is the first time an actual treatment for cancer has been rewarded. "By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year's Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy," said the Nobel committee.
"I'm honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition," Allison said in a statement after Monday's announcement. "A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells that travel our bodies and work to protect us."
It was this basic science that led to Allison's breakthrough — the development of an antibody to block the "checkpoint" protein on T cells, freeing those cells to attack cancer. This led directly to the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug, Ipilimumab, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2011 for the treatment of late-stage melanoma. This and other immunotherapy drugs have since been used to treat patients suffering from lymphoma, lung, renal and other forms of cancer.
We reached out to the 70-year-old Nobel laureate this week to congratulate him, but also to discuss how basic science _ and the federal and state funding behind so much of it — was crucial to his nearly 40 years of research, and scientific and medical progress in general.
"Basic science provides the fundamental foundation for major advances in medical treatment," Allison said. "My early research in T-cell biology was funded by the National Cancer Institute. Basic research isn't often understood. It's complex and requires a thick skin to endure failure after failure in search of success. Getting to answers requires money and patience, but the payoff has the opportunity to save many, many lives."
The National Institutes of Health, Allison said, "remains the largest funding mechanism of medical research in the world." But he also praised his home state, saying, "Texas recognized the opportunity to accelerate discovery and basic science by investing $3 billion over 10 years through the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas."
Biotech and pharmaceutical companies, explained Allison, fund the late-stage research that brings well-developed therapies to clinical trial _ and philanthropy also is quite helpful. "But without that early funding of basic science from the government, many of the therapies that currently treat millions of cancer patients worldwide simply wouldn't exist," he said.
Allison says investment by the federal government has been a "roller-coaster ride over the past 20 years." It's been no different under the Trump administration, with the president first threatening to slash National Institutes of Health funding by more than 20 percent, only to have Congress approve a two-year budget agreement that actually boosts spending by about $3 billion — a nearly 9 percent increase.
We agree with Allison that investing in basic science is one of the best uses of federal and state taxpayer money. When politicians talk of cutting funding to the National Institutes of Health and other funders of basic research, they are not "draining the swamp" but strangling the goose that lays the golden egg.
When it comes to cancer treatment, and perhaps one day a cure, Allison speaks enthusiastically but bluntly: "We've had some wonderful results in the clinic with immune checkpoint blockade helping 20-30 percent of patients with some types of cancer. But that clinical success has outrun our scientific knowledge of how these drugs can be combined with other therapies to improve treatment for more patients and reduce unwanted side effects. We need sustained basic science research to more efficiently guide our progress."
The need for greater basic understanding has not passed, Allison says. "I hope everyone — including our government — can see what's possible when time and money are invested in understanding the basics of how our bodies function. There is so much more to learn, and steady funding of basic science can help us get there faster."
— Reprinted with permission.