Marc Airhart produces the “Point of Discovery” podcast for the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences – it’s a show that highlights interesting scientific endeavors happening across the UT system.
One of his guests, MD Anderson Cancer Center researcher, James Allison, was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2018 for his research in immunotherapy.
Airhart says immunotherapy – which uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer – was once thought of as a crazy idea.
“People would say, ‘You can’t treat cancer without treating the cancer cells – that’s dumb,’” Allison told Airhart on the podcast. “Or, immunotheraphy’ll never work; never has, never will.”
But Allison discovered that cancer has a way of putting the body’s immune system on hold while it attacks the body, sort of like stepping on the brakes of a car. So Allison experimented with interrupting that braking mechanism so that the immune system could continue to do its work.
“Sure enough, we injected this antibody … which blocks the brakes, and we saw tumors just melt away,” Allison said. “In almost every tumor that we did, either by itself or in combination with radiation or something, we found almost no tumors we couldn’t cure in mice.”
After that, Allison started working with a pharmaceutical company to test the drug, known as ipilimumab, on people with melanoma. One woman who participated in the clinical trial, who was very sick and close to going into hospice care, saw dramatic results from the treatment. After one injection, Allison said her tumors “vanished.”
“I met her 10 years later when I visited UCLA, which is where she was treated,” Allison said. “Now she’s almost 18 years out; she’s fine.”
The Food and Drug Administration approved ipilimumab in 2011, and Airhart says since then, thousands of people have used it, and 1 in 5 of those people have experienced “complete remission.”
“I had the good opportunity to see it develop into something that actually does people good,” Allison told him.
Read more perspectives on cancer immunotherapy here.
Written by Caroline Covington.