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Leaders in Innovation

2024 NIHF Inductee James Allison: A Pioneer in Cancer Treatment

Every day, the work of great inventors shapes our lives in meaningful ways, keeping us safer, healthier, more connected and more fulfilled. Since 1973, the National Inventors Hall of Fame® has been dedicated to telling the stories of these world-changing creators and innovators.

This year, we’re proud to welcome a new class of National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees who have made a lasting impact in diverse fields, from agriculture and transportation to communication and entertainment. One of our 2024 Inductees, James Allison, invented immune checkpoint blockade therapy, bringing immunotherapy into mainstream medicine as an effective treatment for cancer.

Curiosity and Drive

Born Aug. 7, 1948, in Alice, Texas, Allison says a constant curiosity is at the core of his story. This began in a childhood filled with opportunities to read, build model airplanes and engage in hands-on science experiments. Allison would even accompany his father, a family doctor, on house calls.

In an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Allison recalled his sense of awe as he used a microscope for the first time. “I remember being really overwhelmed when I got a microscope,” he said. “Getting pond scum or water from some rain puddle and seeing all the cool stuff that was in there – just an amazement. There's life everywhere. No matter where you look, it's a fascinating world.”

When asked about the lessons and values he has continued to carry with him since childhood, Allison responded, “I decided I was not going to ever hesitate to call it out when I thought something was counterproductive and restricting people. The main thing I learned was just to speak [my] mind and stay with it.”

This lifelong sense of determination can be seen through Allison’s journey toward invention.

Since his youth, he had pondered the possibility of developing better ways to treat cancer. He had lost his mother to lymphoma when he was just 11, and he later lost one uncle to melanoma and another to lung cancer. “I knew that should the opportunity ever arise, I would do all that I could to apply my work to curing cancer,” he said.


Revolutionary Findings

At The University of Texas at Austin, Allison earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology in 1969, followed by a doctorate in biological sciences in 1973. He then completed his postdoctoral research in the department of immunology at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation.

While researchers in the field of cancer immunotherapy had primarily focused on how to activate T cells, which attack invading cells like bacteria and viruses, Allison was interested in understanding T cell biology. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, while at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, he contributed to advances in identifying the T cell receptor (TCR) and cloning TCR genes.

In 1985, Allison joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, where he became director of the Cancer Research Laboratory. In 2004, he joined the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he helped found and served as director of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Immunotherapy until 2012, when he returned to MD Anderson in Houston.

Allison’s goal was to “figure out how the immune system worked, and then [...] get it to kill cancer cells without harming normal cells.” To achieve this, he showed that CTLA-4, a protein on the surface of T cells, works as a “brake,” or an immune system checkpoint that helps the body prevent overreaction in immune responses. To free T cells to effectively attack cancer cells, he developed an antibody to block the braking capability of CTLA-4.

Applying his groundbreaking laboratory findings, Allison developed ipilimumab — the first in a class of drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors. Approved in 2011 by the Food and Drug Administration to treat late-stage melanoma, the drug was released commercially as Yervoy®. It has produced unprecedented results by keeping cancer cells from suppressing the immune system and helping the immune system to find and kill cancer cells.

“It’s a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who’ve been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade,” Allison said. “They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work.”


Valuable Lessons

For his life-changing work, Allison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2018. According to MD Anderson, this was the first Nobel Prize given for a cancer therapy in 28 years.

Allison now serves as Regental Professor and Chair of Immunology as well as Director of the James P. Allison Institute at MD Anderson, where he continues working to improve and prolong life for cancer patients. Allison also maintains a deep appreciation for interests and efforts that enrich life. His love of music has led him to play the harmonica for The Checkpoints, a blues band made up of immunologists and oncologists.

When asked what continues to motivate him, Allison responded, “The ability to understand something complex, and then to share it. That’s a big part of science — sharing it.”

In guiding his students, Allison shares his perspective on what makes any scientific endeavor a success. “I think there are frustrations and setbacks that are inherent in science [...], especially if you're asking questions that nobody knows the answer to,” Allison said. “You’ve just got to start looking at it a different way. Make mistakes. Go down one path, [...] back up and go down another one. You can't be disappointed because that's part of the process. What you should be proud of is having an idea, a hypothesis, and designing a good experiment that really tests that hypothesis. If you get an answer you can interpret, you've been successful.”


Meet More of Our Visionary 2024 Inductees

To learn more about the new National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees whose stories will inspire generations through our events, museum exhibits and invention education programs, visit our website.

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