Arming the Immune System Against Cancer

Claudia Dreifus in The New York Times:

CONVERSATION-articleLargeJames P. Allison is the chairman of the immunology department at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. His seminal research opened up a new field in cancer treatment: immunotherapy. Instead of poisoning a tumor or destroying it with radiation, Dr. Allison has pioneered ways to unleash the immune system to destroy a cancer. Two years ago, Science magazine anointed immunotherapy as the “Breakthrough of the Year.” More recently, Dr. Allison, 66, won the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, often a precursor to a Nobel. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. The class of drugs you’ve helped invent has been hailed as one of the first truly new cancer treatments in decades. What makes it so different?

A. It’s a bit counterintuitive. Till now, most cancer treatments — radiation, surgery, chemotherapy — attacked tumors directly, with the goal of killing them. In the 1980s, my laboratory did work on how the T-cells of the immune system, which are the attack cells, latch onto the cells infected with viruses and bacteria and ultimately kill them. That research lead me to think that the immune system could be unleashed to kill cancers. Basically, I proposed that we should stop worrying about directly killing cancer cells and develop drugs to release those T-cells.

More here.