Nobel winner struggled to get cancer discovery to market

Nobel winner struggled to get cancer discovery to market

- in Health

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James Allison knew he was onto something: He and colleagues had found a compound that acted as a brake on immune system cells called T-cells. His colleagues wanted to investigate this protein as a gateway to treating autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

But Allison had another target in mind: cancer. What if you could uncloak cancer cells so the immune system could go after them?

Allison, now at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on Monday, alongside Japan’s Tasuku Honjo. Their findings have led directly to the development of Yervoy, the first immunotherapy drug to hit the market for cancer, as well as Keytruda, the drug credited with keeping former President Jimmy Carter alive after his melanoma diagnosis.

These drugs have transformed how cancer is treated and given hope to people with some of the most devastating cancer diagnoses. The drugs, most of which cost $100,000 or more for a course of treatment, are also making big money for pharmaceutical companies.

But Allison struggled to get businesses interested in his discovery, said his longtime friend and fellow cancer researcher Lewis Lanier.

“When he found it, he knew what he found,” Lanier, who studies cancer immunotherapy at the University of California, San Francisco, told NBC News.

“He really wanted to make this help people, not just cure mice,” Lanier added. “Pharma (companies) thought, ‘Well, immunology’s really nice but we’re going to work on autoimmune disease.’ Jim kind of flipped it and said, ‘I want to induce the immune system to get cancer.’”

That was, in no small part, because Allison had personal experience with cancer. His mother, his brother and two uncles died of cancer.

Allison’s work focused on cytotoxic T lymphocyte antigen-4 or CTLA-4, which tamps down the activity of T-cells. Controlling T-cells can be a good thing. Out-of-control immune cells can produce what’s called a “cytokine storm”, a deadly result of some infections, as well as autoimmune diseases such as type-1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

However, tumor cells can exploit this mechanism to escape the immune system as it protects the body against not only germs, but cancer as well.

“After helping to show that CTLA-4 functions as a ‘brake’ on T cells and prevents them from exerting their disease-fighting ability, he was the first to demonstrate that blocking CTLA-4 with an antibody could prevent tumor development in mice as well as enable them to eliminate large, established tumors.” The Cancer Research Institute, a New York-based organization that funds cancer research and where Allison serves as head of the scientific advisory council, said in a statement.


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