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or nearly two decades, immunologist Jim Allison pursued an idea his peers thought was crazy: That taking the brakes off the immune system would unleash it to fight cancer. His research helped spur one of the hottest areas of drug development today. Tens of thousands of cancer patients have now received life-saving immune therapies based on Allison’s vision.

Allison, in turn, has become a rock star in the medical world. The soft-spoken, 67-year-old Texan recently won a Lasker Award, often called the American Nobel. And at cancer conferences, Allison’s blues band — “The Checkpoints” — draws larger crowds to hear his singing and harmonica skills. STAT caught up with Allison before the Lasker ceremonies at the Pierre Hotel in New York.

You’ve said you didn’t realize the impact you’d had until you met a patient who survived because of immune therapy.

When you cure a mouse, they still bite you and pee on you — I guess it’s revenge for giving them the tumor in the first place. To see it making a difference in people’s lives … until I met [patients], it just wasn’t real to me. It was data and numbers.

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Did you have a personal reason for wanting to wage war on cancer?

My mother died when I was 10 of lymphoma. She had a horrible time with radiation therapy. Two of her brothers also died of cancer. One had chemotherapy and suffered the ravages of chemotherapy in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. [Fighting cancer] was always something in the back of my mind, but still I consider myself a basic scientist.

Before immune therapy, the hottest thing in cancer treatment was targeted therapy  going after specific genetic mutations in the tumor. Why do you think immune therapy is a better approach? 

You’re never going to cure cancer with targeted therapies because there are so many mutations, you can’t cover them all.

Are people really cured with immune therapy?

I think we can use the word “cure” now for a fraction of patients. The question isn’t “Can we cure patients?” The question is “How do we cure more, and how do we do it outside of melanoma and lung cancer?”

Why doesn’t our immune system fight cancer on its own?

We get cancer all the time and it’s eliminated [by the immune system]. It works most of the time, I think, but then it doesn’t. Some tumors can make things that cripple the immune system. They’re pretty wimpy though. If you take the brakes off [the immune system], you’ve got a lot of momentum. The tumor’s going to have to throw up a pretty big wall to stop it.

Former President Jimmy Carter, whose skin cancer has spread to his brain, is being treated with the type of immune therapy you pioneered. What do you think of that?

I don’t think he was necessarily a great president, but he’s certainly a fine man. He’s done more good than most people. I think that’s what everyone ought to think about — having the world be a better place because you’re in it. And he’s done that.

And you?

I like to think I did.

Jim Allison is a professor of immunology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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