Prize-winner fights cancer through turmoil at hospital
Monday, October 8, 2018
Jim Allison lost his mother, a brother, two uncles and a cousin to cancer, but he says he never set out to find a cure for the disease. Like many great scientists, he was driven by “the selfish desire to be the first person on the planet to know something,” as he explained to Houston Chronicle medical writer Todd Ackerman.
In the 1990s, Allison’s development of an antibody that frees the body’s immune system to attack tumors revived the moribund field of immunotherapy, now taking its place alongside surgery, chemotherapy and radiation as a key weapon in treating cancer.
Allison, the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s director of immunology, was honored on Oct. 1 with the Nobel Prize in Medicine. He shared the award with Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University in Japan, who conducted similar research.
The Nobel announcement, which follows the prestigious Lasker Award and other recognition showered on Allison’s work, is a proud moment for the harmonica-playing scientist, for MD Anderson and for Houston. And it’s a reminder that even amid the turmoil and drama that often roils major medical institutions, the men and women toiling behind the scenes in labs deserve our support — including the support of public funding — even when the practical benefits of their work aren’t immediately apparent.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Allison says, when his research with mice challenged conventional wisdom regarding the function of a newly identified protein. While other scientists believed the protein stimulated the immune system, Allison’s work indicated it had the opposite effect — it was a brake, not a gas pedal.
Even as Allison’s work advanced — he figured out how to unlock the brake — it wasn’t clear whether or when it would lead to effective treatments. Twenty years later, immunotherapy drugs are extending the lives of patients with lung, breast and other deadly cancers.
The accolades for Allison’s work over the past few years have coincided with controversy and turmoil in the institution that employs him. After five years as MD Anderson’s president, Dr. Ron DePinho resigned in March 2017 amid a revolt by faculty members who said they felt pressure to produce more revenue through higher patient loads. The world-renowned cancer center started in 2017 with an operating deficit of nearly $170 million. It laid off hundreds of employees.
Leadership issues and financial problems ebb and flow, but the work of scientists like Jim Allison will endure. Its legacy will be the lengthened and improved lives of countless cancer patients, and the inspiration that trickles down to future generations of researchers driven, like Allison, by a pure thirst for knowledge.