James P. Allison, PhD

  • Recruited to: The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
  • Recruited from: Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
  • Award: Established Investigator

Dr. James Allison is a professor and chair of the Department of Immunology, director of the Immunotherapy Platform and deputy director of the David H. Koch Center for Applied Research of Genitourinary Cancers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Dr. Allison’s pioneer work has transformed the fields of basic and tumor immunology.  Early in his career, he identified and characterized key molecules involved in T-cell activation, including the T-cell receptor (TCR), the prototypical costimulatory receptor CD28 and coinhibitory receptor CTLA-4, providing evidence that T-cell responses are determined by a complex process involving antigen-driven TCR signaling plus integration of costimulatory and coinhibitory signals. His landmark translational studies showing antibody-mediated blockade of CTLA-4 co-inhibitory function could enhance antitumor immunity and result in tumor rejection in mice prompted clinical development of ipilimumab, a CTLA-4 blocking monoclonal antibody.  Ipilimumab is the first drug of its kind to show survival benefit in melanoma patients and was approved by the FDA in 2011 as a standard-of-care therapy for late-stage melanoma patients. Dr. Allison’s concept of antibody-mediated blockade of immunologic checkpoints as cancer therapy has opened a new field of immunotherapy, with second-generation agents, such as anti-PD-1 antibodies, currently being investigated in pre-clinical and clinical settings as treatments for cancer.

At MD Anderson, Allison’s group continues to study basic mechanisms regulating T-cell responses and to interweave mouse and human studies to improve existing approaches and develop new strategies for manipulating T cell responses to cure cancer.  Another major activity will be to build a team of clinicians and physician/scientists working together in a state-of-the-art immune monitoring facility to accelerate the movement of immune-based combinatorial therapies into clinical trials. These trials will not necessarily have conventional clinical endpoints, but will be designed to yield mechanistic data that would inform combinations and schedules likely to have clinical impact. These would be small trials, likely in the pre-surgical or neoadjuvant setting, with extensive collection and analysis of samples from tumor and local lymphoid tissues as well as peripheral blood. The overall goal of this immense project will be to dissect the immunologic impact of novel therapies and combinations as well as examining the tumor itself for alterations that may render the tumor resistant to specific mechanisms of immune attack.

Dr. Allison received a B.S. in microbiology (1969) and a Ph.D. in biological sciences (1973) from the University of Texas at Austin.  He completed a postdoctoral fellowship (1974 – 1977) in the Department of Molecular Immunology at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in California.  He began his academic career as an assistant professor (1977 – 1983) in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Texas, Science Park – Research Division in Smithville, Texas, and quickly achieved the rank of professor (1985 – 2004) in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Division of Immunology at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Allison was recently recruited to MD Anderson from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he had been the chair of the Immunology Program, the attending immunologist and director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Immunotherapy, and a professor at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University since 2004. So far in his career, Dr. Allison has over 260 publications, with many in high-impact journals, such as Nature, Science, Cell, Immunity, Cancer Cell and Blood.  His lifetime h-index is 72; two of his papers have been cited over 1,000 times and five have been cited more than 500 times (the total number of citations are more than 22,000).  Since joining MD Anderson, Dr. Allison has already received funding from Stand Up to Cancer and the Cancer Research Institute (SU2C/CRI) to lead a Dream Team in Translational Immunology Research with the aim of facilitating clinical development of new and/or improved forms of cancer immunotherapy.  Based on his outstanding contributions to science and medicine, he was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1997), a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator (1997), and a member of the Institute of Medicine (2007).

In 2015 Dr. Allison won the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific awards. He was honored with the first-ever 2013 American Association of Cancer Research-Cancer Research Institute Lloyd J. Old Award in Cancer Immunology, the 2013 Breakthrough Prize for Biosciences and the 2014 Tang Prize for Biopharmaceutical Science. His other major honors include the Dana Foundation Award in Human Immunology Research, the Richard V. Smalley, M.D. Memorial Lectureship Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of lmmunologists and a Roche Award for Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy.