Cancer Immunotherapy Reaches Clinical Tipping Point

Jim Allison, Ph.D. [Photo courtesy of MD Anderson]
It's award season and the scientific community has selected its own award winners for 2013. One of them is cancer immunotherapy, a technique to fight tumors by using the body’s own immune defenses.

The magazine Science named cancer immunotherapy the scientific breakthrough of 2013.

It also heaped praise on MD Anderson’s very own James Allison.

Dr. Allison’s research focuses on T cells, part of the body’s immune system.

He discovered that cancer cells use a molecule called CTLA-4 to stop the T cells from attacking them.

“The cancer cell by being large and actually being not destroyed easily by a few hits, keeps interacting with the T cells, until it finally, we think, accumulates enough of this molecule, CTLA-4, where it just, the (T cells) can’t do anything they’re basically paralyzed.”

Allison created a drug to block that molecule, and let the T cells get on with their work of attacking the abnormal tissue.

The drug is called Yervoy. The FDA approved its use for the treatment of metastatic melanoma in 2011.

New studies are now showing  that many patients with dire, late-stage melanoma are benefiting from Yervoy.

Almost a quarter of them are surviving five years or more, which was almost unheard of before.

One of them is Sharon Belvin, who now lives in Pennsylvania.

“I was diagnosed when I was 22 years old and it was actually two weeks before I was set to get married. Here I was expecting to have this big beautiful wedding and instead I got a port-o-cath and chemo.”

Belvin began a clinical trial of Yervoy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

That was back in 2005.

“Oh, I should have died. I had metastases in both lungs, lymph nodes surrounding my lungs and my brain.”

But Belvin’s tumors disappeared and she went on to have two healthy children.

She seems to be in permanent remission.

Stories like that, and clinical trials demonstrating the results, are why Allison’s work is being hailed.

Over the past two months, he has also received awards from the Economist magazine, a cancer research organization and a $3 million innovator’s prize from a Silicon Valley foundation.

Allison says it’s a paradigm shift in how we fight cancer.

“We’re not treating the cancer, we’re treating the immune system, we’re treating the patient, not the cancer. Our challenge now is to find the best combinations of things, not just these agents but genomically-targeted therapies, radiation, things like that.”

And Allison would like to know why Yervoy works in some melanoma patients but not others.

The drug is now being tested on other types of cancer, and in combination with other drugs that focus on the immune system.

Given the momentum of the work, some observers say Allison could be a candidate for some big scientific awards in the future, like possibly a Nobel Prize.  

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...