Awards, Research, People, Mind & body, Science & environment

Lasker Award for immunotherapy derived from UC Berkeley research

By Robert Sanders

The Lasker Foundation today awarded its 2015 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award to James Allison, an immunologist who conducted groundbreaking research in UC Berkeley’s Cancer Research Laboratory in the 1990s that led to a new way to harness the immune system to treat cancer.

James Allison

Lasker-DeBakey Award winner James Allison, now at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, conducted his seminal research during a 20-year career at UC Berkeley. Courtesy of Lasker Foundation.

As a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology, Allison discovered and developed a monoclonal antibody therapy that unleashes the immune system to combat cancer. By blocking a protein that normally restrains the body’s natural ability to attack tumor cells, Allison, now at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, devised a fundamentally new strategy for treating malignancies, according to the foundation’s announcement.

Because this approach targets immune cells rather than specific tumors, it holds great promise to thwart diverse cancers. Allison’s work has already benefited thousands of people with advanced melanoma, a disease that typically used to kill people in less than a year. The therapy he conceived has delivered recoveries that last for a decade or more.

“We congratulate Jim on this highly deserved honor,” said Russell Vance, the current director of the Cancer Research Laboratory and a professor of molecular and cell biology. “It is gratifying to see the Lasker committee recognize the importance of fundamental cancer research conducted at Berkeley, and even more gratifying to see how this research has impacted the lives of cancer patients.”

The Lasker Award, often described as “America’s Nobel,” is among the most prestigious science prizes in the world. Eighty-six Lasker Award winners have received the Nobel Prize, including UC Berkeley’s own Randy Schekman in 2012.

Allison and his collaborators, Dana Leach and Max Krummel, published a landmark paper in 1996 in Science magazine, showing for the first time that inhibition of a special molecule in the immune system called CTLA-4 could potentially prevent tumor growth in mice.

The paper represented the birth of a new concept in cancer treatment called “checkpoint blockade,” Vance said. At the time, there was significant skepticism about this approach, and it was not until 2011 that anti-CTLA4 antibodies, under the name ipilimumab (Yervoy), were finally approved for treatment of melanoma in humans.

Since then, checkpoint blockade immunotherapy has transformed the pharmaceutical industry’s approach to cancer. A second checkpoint immunotherapy called anti-PD1 has shown potent anti-tumor efficacy and has also been approved for use in humans, Vance said. In 2013, Science magazine named cancer immunotherapy the breakthrough of the year, and Allison has received numerous prizes for his work, including the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.