After Cancer Wiped Out His Family, This Researcher Taught Our Immune Systems To Fight Back

To receive a cancer diagnosis, or have someone close to you be diagnosed with cancer, is a truly devastating experience. Around the world, cancer is the second most common cause of death. [1] In 2020, it’s expected that more than 1.8 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer and more than 600,000 will die from the disease.

[2] To lose someone to this disease is horrible, and the experience is that much worse if you’re a child losing a parent. That was the case for Nobel Prize-winning researcher James Allison.

At the age of 11, Allison’s mother succumbed to lymphoma, a type of cancer that causes lymphocytes, special infection-fighting cells in your immune system, to change and experience out of control growth. [3] These lymphocyte cells can be found in your lymph nodes, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. [3] Allison recalls his mother, at the end of her life, bedridden and burned from radiation treatments. The tragic loss of his mother was only the start. Eventually, he would lose two uncles to cancer and then his brother.

Experiencing that kind of loss, and loss at the hands of the same disease, is a traumatizing and world-shaping experience, though Allison doesn’t acknowledge very readily that cancer’s impact on his family and life would take him down the path he’s walked. “I guess doing something about cancer was always kind of there in my mind,” he said in an interview with TIME. [4]

But Allison has done something remarkable: he has discovered ways to use the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells. “My mother’s death when I was young hit me hard. I didn’t realize how hard until later on,” he said. But he says that his tragic family story and his interest in science are divorced from one another and that his mission to beat cancer isn’t so much a story of revenge but scientific intrigue.

Allison’s love of science began young, and his unwillingness to compromise with ignorance is noteworthy. In high school, Allison boycotted his biology class due to the school’s refusal to teach evolution. Eventually, Allison was allowed to take the class’s credit through a course taught at the University of Texas.

His early foray into a collegiate environment spurred his interest not just in biology and science, but in something very specific: tiny immune cells in the body called T cells. At the time, T cells weren’t exactly understood.

“Nobody really knew anything about them except that they cruised around the body and somehow recognized when something wasn’t right, did something about it and didn’t kill you in the process,” he told TIME. “How did they know what were self and what were nonself cells, and how did they know when to react and when to do nothing?”

Allison believed that T cells may hold the key to defeating cancer, and that it was simply a matter of convincing the T cells that the cancer cells are foreign invaders – that they don’t belong in the body. Following that hypothesis, Allison started experimenting.

“I had some mice sitting around that had been cured [of their tumors],” he explained. “For the hell of it, I thought, ‘What would happen if I inject them with [more] tumor cells?’” What wound up happening was surprising: the mice didn’t get cancer. “I gave them 10 times, 100 times more tumor cells, but they wouldn’t take. They didn’t faze the mice. That made a big impression on me and made me think, Huh.”

His hypothesis was that the mice’s bodies were able to recognize the cancer cells and that their immune systems had learned to destroy the cells just as they would an invading bacteria or virus.

At this point in his career, working at a satellite research facility of MD Anderson Cancer Center, Allison describes himself as being “pretty unsupervised,” allowing himself the freedom to take on more esoteric and “radical” projects. The mice had introduced him to a new concept that he knew he had to explore further. He began testing his theory that T cells could be trained to destroy cancer cells.

But conclusive findings didn’t come easy. Allison spent decades trying to understand how it is that you take a person’s immune system and teach it to target cancer. Eventually, Allison was able to figure out the steps needed to unlock the cancer destroying capabilities of T cells.

He observed other scientists in his field trying to pump up the immune system, describing it as “flooring the gas” on a person’s immune system. But something was missing. To him, you needed to both floor the gas and remove the parking brake. Eventually, he identified the proverbial parking brake that kept the immune system from destroying cancer. Thanks to his research, he was able to develop checkpoint inhibitors, a type of cancer-fighting drug. These checkpoint inhibitors remove your immune system’s blockade and allow it to target tumor cells.

But Allison’s research had taken place in mice exclusively – no human testing at all. This made pharmaceutical companies reluctant to test checkpoint inhibitors in human cancer patients. But eventually, thanks to the advocacy of a friend of Allison’s in the biotech industry, a small company took the risk and began testing his new drug in humans. Eventually, having seen the results of the drug, Bristol-Myers Squibb got involved. But even they were reluctant to lean in and study the effects of the drug.

“I did a lot of yelling and jumping up and down and arguing with people,” he says. “I kept telling them that the tumors in mice always grew before they went away. The immune system needs time. It’s not like a drug that kills within hours.”

By 2006, Allison was working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Here, the checkpoint inhibitors were being tested on human cancer patients. He met a 22-year-old woman named Sharon Belvin who was diagnosed with late-stage melanoma. Her doctors said that she shouldn’t start a family, a goal she had been working toward, because she wouldn’t live long enough to care for her children.

But following treatments with checkpoint inhibitors, her tumors started to shrink.

“She was the first patient I met,” says Allison. “After meeting her, it finally dawned on me. Until then it was abstract, and the full impact of what I was doing didn’t occur to me.”

Allison says that Sharon is still in remission. “She stays in touch and sends me photos of her babies.” And Sharon was only the beginning. Now, thousands of cancer patients are still alive thanks to the checkpoint inhibitors that Allison was instrumental in developing.

These people suffer colon, liver, lung, breast, cervical, bladder, and other types of cancer. But they all have one thing in common now: survival thanks to Allison’s research.