February 19, 2021
He Felt That Way, Too
- Dr. Allison tells SurvivorNet Connect that research is “not a democratic process.” Facts are real, and you have to go where the data takes you
- He believes that sometimes you have to be ahead of your time, even though not everyone agrees with you
- If you are alone in the lab, as Dr. Allison once was, don’t be surprised when people jump on the bandwagon later on, when they figure out it was the right way to go
In 2018 Jim Allison, an immunology researcher at MD Anderson Cancer Center, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology of Medicine. The most prestigious recognition in the world was the result of years of painstaking research in immunology. His scientific contributions were seen as a breakthrough as he was the pioneer of a revolutionary cancer treatment called CTLA-4 checkpoint inhibitor drugs. Dr. Allison’s work led to the development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug, Ipilimumab, for metastatic melanoma, which was approved by the FDA in 2011.
But Dr. Allison faced skepticism from the scientific community for many years. He tells SurvivorNet Connect that fellow scientists were studying cancer biology and focusing on identifying the driver mutations that signaled cells to divide.
Dr. Allison says it was the data that kept him moving forward. The biologists, he says, looked down on him saying, “Oh, you’re an immunologist. That’ll never work, you have to inhibit the enzyme.” But he also faced criticism from fellow immumologists who, he says, told him, “Oh, you’re a tumor immunologist. Why don’t you do real immunology?”
“I just went where the data took me,” he tells SurvivorNet Connect. “It’s not a democratic process. Data is real, and there is such a thing as facts. And if you don’t believe them, tough.”
Dr. Allison was working with Harold Varmus at Sloan Kettering when they received the first genomic sequence data from Bert Vogelstein. “Initially Varmus was disappointed. He said, ‘I thought there’d be more drivers and there are just all these passengers.'”
But Dr. Allison recognized the potential, saying, “The immune system knows when something’s different. It doesn’t even know if it’s a driver or not, but it knows it ought not to be there. It cares about the passengers just as much as it does the drivers. And that’s a potential gold mine.” Dr. Allison called Vogelstein who shared more sequences, and the two scientists published a theoretical paper in 2006.
“And that’s the way it played out,” he says. “Not exactly as I might have expected it.” Adds Dr. Padmanee Sharma, Dr. Allison’s wife and fellow researcher: “Sometimes you have to be a little bit ahead of your time, even though everybody doesn’t agree with you. And later on everybody jumps on the bandwagon when they figure out that it was the right way to go.”