Former Scripps research postdoc wins Nobel Prize in medicine

Former Scripps research postdoc wins Nobel Prize in medicine
James Allison will share the prize with Japan's Tasaku Honjo for work that ``takes advantage of the immune system's ability to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells,'' the Karolinska Institute in Sweden said in a statement. Courtesy photo

REGION — James Allison, whose early work at Scripps Research in La Jolla set him on a path to using the immune system to successfully fight cancer, reached the pinnacle of science today when he was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

The 70-year-old Allison worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Scripps Research from 1974-77, when the center was known as the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, The San Diego Union Tribune reported.

Allison will share the prize with Japan’s Tasaku Honjo for work that “takes advantage of the immune system’s ability to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells,” the Karolinska Institute in Sweden said in a statement.

When he started at Scripps Research, Allison was stuck doing work as a biochemist instead of exploring his passion for immunology. But he managed to switch fields, which changed his life and helped show the value of rallying the immune system to fight cancer.

“With another postdoc I did some side experiments on how tumors are recognized by the immune system,” Allison told the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2016. “We submitted to Nature, and it was published; we got a lot of notoriety for that.”

That research earned him a research post at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He would later spend almost 20 years at UC Berkeley, where he would do some of his most influential work, according to the Union-Tribune.

He has since returned to MD Anderson, where he is chief of immunology.

Allison, whose mother died of lymphoma, primarily focused on a protein that operates somewhat like a brake in a motor vehicle.

“(Allison) realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors,” the Karolinska Institute said in a statement. “He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients.”

“In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action,” the Karolinska Institute said in a statement. “Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer.”

Today’s announcement represents only the latest instance in which a current or former Scripps Research scientist has been awarded the Nobel Prize, according to the Union-Tribune. The recipients include K. Barry Sharpless, who won the Nobel in chemistry in 2001 for his insights on antibodies, and Bruce Beutler, who won the prize in physiology and medicine in 2011 for his work in immunology.

“I’m honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition,” Allison said in a statement. “A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge.”

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