In the fight against cancer, few recent discoveries match the impact of immunotherapy, which has proven a game-changer in many malignancies, including melanoma, lung and kidney cancers.
Two notable pioneers, James P. Allison, PhD, and Robert D. Schreiber, PhD, recently won the 2017 Balzan Prize, “for Immunological Approaches in Cancer Therapy.” Both men launched their careers as postdoctoral fellows in the Department of Immunology at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, the precursor to The Scripps Research Institute.
From 1974 to 1977, Allison, training under tumor-immunologist Ralph Reisfeld, PhD, researched human leukocyte antigens (HLA) and T cells at Scripps in La Jolla. The HLA proteins fascinated him because of their role enabling the immune system to distinguish self from invaders. In 1977, Allison and a colleague, G. N. Callahan, reported in a letter to the journal Nature that they had found evidence that the immune system was prevented from attacking cancer cells due to antigens’ “association with additional proteins.”
Finding the factors that inhibited the immune attack on cancer has been key to developing checkpoint-blockade cancer immunotherapies such as ipilimumab, (Yervoy). Allison left Scripps for the University of California, Berkeley, then later became Head of Immunology at Sloan-Kettering in New York, and recently relocated to Texas to M.D. Anderson where he is Chair of Immunology.
In addition to the Balzan Prize, Allison will receive the National Academy of Sciences’ 2018 Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal in April.
“Allison’s pioneering research has had a vast impact on cancer therapy and the evolution of the entire field of cancer immunology. His work has advanced science while improving the health and wellbeing of cancer patients worldwide, a process that continues to this day,” the Academy wrote.
Allison and Schreiber’s time at Scripps had overlapped. Schreiber conducted postdoctoral training with Scripps Immunology Department Chairman Hans Muller-Eberhard, MD, PhD, in the 1970s and eventually became a tenured faculty member at Scripps. Schreiber’s studies focused on the complement system, cytokines, and characterizing immune responses to many antigens, including those of cancer.
Schreiber later moved to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He is credited with discovering the concept of cancer immunoediting, a process that leads tumor cells to escape the immune system as it preferentially selects for those cells least likely to activate an immune response. He now works to develop personalized cancer vaccines.
“He unraveled its molecular genetic bases and the possibility to revert it by checkpoint blockade. These data changed the field,” wrote the Balzan Foundation awards committee in their announcement. The Balzan Prize is named for Italian journalist and entrepreneur Eugenio Balzan.
Scripps Research alum Rafi Ahmed honored with Coley Award for tumor immunology
Postdoctoral fellowships at Scripps Research have launched many distinguished careers, including that of Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Emory Vaccine Center.
Ahmed received the Robert Koch Award last year, and he was recently awarded the William B Coley Award for Distinguish Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology. The award was given for his seminal work on immune memory as well as his definitive studies of the role of the PD-1 receptor in T cell exhaustion during chronic infections and cancers.
“This groundwork guided more recent efforts to improve the safety and efficacy of cell-based cancer immunotherapies, including chimeric antigen receptor T cells,” according to the Cancer Research Institute, which issues the award.
Ahmed joined Scripps Research as a postdoctoral fellow in 1981, after earning his PhD at Harvard University. He worked with Michael Oldstone, MD, a professor of Immunology and Microbiology, until 1984, studying the foundations of immune memory and persistent viral infections. Ahmed moved to the University of California, Los Angeles, and later joined Emory University.
According to Oldstone, the exciting era of the 1970s through the 1990s generated an explosion in immunologic research which continues to this day. Led by gifted faculty, Scripps Research’s Immunology and Microbiology Department attracts outstanding applicants from all over the world to complete their postdoctoral training.