Alumnus receives Nobel Prize for revolutionary cancer treatment

Jackson Barton

Over 50 years ago, now-retired biochemistry professor Barrie Kitto nearly fired a 17-year-old James Allison from his dishwashing job after he caused an explosion while cleaning test tubes with a combustible chemical. But Monday morning, Allison received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“One of the representatives came in and told me, ‘We want Jim to stay in the lab. He helps everybody. And besides, he tells great jokes,’” Kitto said after hearing about Allison’s achievement.

Allison, who is the executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and a UT alumnus, received the Nobel Prize for his discoveries in immunotherapy and cancer research. Allison won the award jointly with Japanese immunologist Tasuku Honjo.

“I’m very proud to congratulate UT Distinguished Alumnus Jim Allison on receiving the Nobel Prize in Medicine,” UT President Gregory Fenves said in a press release. “Jim’s research on new ways to fight cancer has saved countless lives and turned once untreatable diagnoses into ones that are now treatable and beatable. He’s provided hope to many patients and their families.”

Allison was in a conference in New York on Monday and could not be reached.

Kitto, Allison’s Ph.D. adviser until 1973, was astonished by how many ways Allison’s findings were applicable to cancer treatments.

“Jim’s science has just been absolutely staggering in the way that it has turned around, really, much of the world’s approach to cancer therapy to just a huge array of different cancers,” Kitto said.

According to a UT press release, cancer immunotherapy makes the body’s immune system — specifically T-cells, which identify and attack foreign bodies — destroy cancer cells like it would other harmful bacteria and viruses. 

Allison’s breakthrough came when he identified a “brake” on T-cells that some cancers activate to protect themselves.

“Cancer is very, very smart,” Kitto said. “It has a way of combining with these T-cells to turn them off.”

According to the University press release, Allison’s treatment was administered to five patients diagnosed with melanoma. After three years, three of the five patients are still alive.

Hadley Holland, a human development and family sciences senior, said Allison’s award makes her even more excited to attend UT, whose faculty and alumni have won eight Nobel Prizes.

“It’s cool to know that we have faculty and staff that are making such big strides in their profession and their careers,” Holland said. “It makes me excited to be a student for professors like that.”