Image via Nobel Prize
James Allison by Alice Park for Time

James P. Allison

Director Scientific Advisory Council

Cancer Research Institute


Director Scientific Advisory Council


Cancer Research Institute




75 years





What makes James P. Allison a Global Shaker?

James P. Allison is an American immunologist who believed that unleashing the immune system was a way to beat cancer when almost no one else did.

Years later a Nobel Prize and a growing list of cancer survivors have proved him right.

Motivated by his personal encounters with cancer—he lost his mother, two uncles, and later a brother to the disease— Allison has fought passionately to translate his findings into medicine for human patients. His dedication has led to groundbreaking discoveries and new treatments for the deadliest cancers that we face.

Allison has had a longstanding fascination in the mechanisms of T-cell development and activation and the development of novel strategies for tumour immunotherapy. He is recognized as one of the first people to isolate the T-cell antigen receptor complex protein.

Also known as “killer cells,” T-Cells are cytotoxic – this means that they are able to directly kill virus-infected cells as well as cancer cells. These tiny but powerful cells are the core component to the groundbreaking Car-T cell therapy.

Born in Alice, Texas in the United States, Allison studied at the University of Texas in Austin, and he received his PhD there in 1973.

In the early 1980s, he identified the receptor that allows the immune system’s T cells to recognize the antigens of infected or abnormal cells.

In 1994–1995, he showed that T cells also need a signal from a “costimulatory” molecule to launch their attacks. Then Allison and his colleagues discovered that a molecule called cytotoxic T lymphocyte antigen-4 (CTLA-4) acts as a checkpoint, or built-in brake, on T cells. They could remove the brake and set T cells loose against cancer cells with an antibody that inhibited the CTLA-4 checkpoint.

In 2010, that antibody, now known as ipilimumab became the first treatment—of any type—to improve survival in metastatic melanoma patients, and in 2011 it became the first FDA-approved checkpoint immunotherapy.

In 2013, Science magazine named cancer immunotherapy the “breakthrough of the year,” citing Allison’s work in particular.

By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumour cells James Allison alongside Tasuku Honjo has established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.

The duo won The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2018 “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.”

“It’s the dream of a lifetime. I’m just stunned,” said Allison when he got the news.

Since 2012 Allison has been a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and it is here that he also serves as chairman of immunology.

He also currently serves as the director of the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) scientific advisory council and has done since 2011.

According to CRI, for such a high-powered scientist, Allison is surprisingly down-to-earth. “He speaks in the drawl of his native Texas, enjoys a good BBQ, and plays harmonica in a garage band called “The Checkpoints,” composed of other immunologists.”

Tags: cancer, cancer treatment, CAR-T, immunotherapy

Last updated: February 5, 2020