For decades researchers had been trying to figure out effective ways to use the body's own immune system against cancer.
Researchers from the United States and Japan won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discoveries that help the body marshal its cellular troops to attack invading cancers. "We patented it", Allison told The Scientist earlier this year.
"Everybody wanted to do chemotherapy and radiation. 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", he said.
Allison also said he was "honored and humbled" by the award.
Charles Swanton, chief clinician at the charity Cancer Research UK, said the scientists' work had revolutionized cancer and immunotherapy.
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The already much-heralded University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has just scored global bragging rights. The therapy is created to remove this protein "brake" and allow the immune system to more quickly get to work fighting the cancer. This attitude rubbed off on the team. He realized that if he could release that "brake", the immune system would wreak havoc on tumors.
Allison's insight, Perlmann said, was to trigger the brakes instead. "The tumors went away". "I thought this was pretty cool".
The discovery led to a concept called "checkpoint blockade".
Allison's interest in the immune system was deepened by an experiment he conducted on mice when he was a graduate student. It, too, operates as a T-cell brake, but via a different molecular mechanism than CTLA-4.
Crucial funding for his research over the years has come from the National Institutes of Health, particularly the National Cancer Institute, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Cancer Research Institute, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Stand Up to Cancer and PICI. Clinical trials are underway in many other cancer types. "There's no hospital, no patients". Working with postdoc Dana Leach, Allison showed in 1996 that injecting anti-CTLA-4 antibodies into mice eradicated colorectal carcinoma tumors.
Antibodies against one such receptor, PD-1, have given especially impressive results.
Antibodies against PD-1 have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as an investigational new drug for the treatment of cancer. In 2015, the FDA approved anti-PD-1 therapy for malignant melanoma, and has since approved it for non-small-cell lung, gastric and several other cancers. "It represents a paradigmatic shift and a landmark in the fight against cancer".