Immunotherapy Pioneer James Allison Has Unfinished Business with Cancer

On the day I arrive at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to meet James Allison and his longtime collaborator Padmanee Sharma, they are nowhere to be found. The previous day, one of their colleagues informs me, Allison was summoned up on stage by Willie Nelson, in front of 60,000 people at a rock festival in Austin, to deliver a harmonica solo. They are still on their way back.

By now, Allison is almost used to adulation. There are even murmurings that his work in cancer immunotherapy might win him the Nobel Prize. Twenty years ago, he was the first to show it’s possible to turbocharge the body’s response to cancer with a drug that releases the immune system so that it destroys tumors on its own. 

 […] The answers can’t come too soon for some. The pharmaceutical industry and research institutions are in the midst of a pell-mell sprint into thousands of clinical trials based on new immunotherapy agents. As of October, by one tally, more than 166,736 patients were being sought to fill slots in studies of drugs involving a single protein, called PD-1. The overall number of immunotherapy trials probably tops 3,000, says Jeff Bluestone, an immunologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who also serves as president and CEO of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.