Science interview

Nobel Laureate Jim Allison talks cancer research, science education, and advice for aspiring researchers

Tracking how far we’ve progressed in the battle against cancer

The Tech recently reviewed Jim Allison: Breakthrough, a documentary from director Bill Haney detailing Jim Allison’s journey from his childhood to winning a Nobel Prize in Physiology last year. In an interview with The Tech, Allison talks about the past, present, and future of cancer research, along with giving some general advice for scientists.

The Tech: From the beginning of the film, it mentioned that T-cells were discovered while you were still in college. What drew you towards researching this new discovery as opposed to more mainstream methods of fighting cancer at the time?

Allison: I wasn’t really doing cancer. I was just trying to learn what I wanted to do as a scientist. I enjoyed biochemistry, understanding proteins, purifying them, understanding what they did. I took this undergraduate course in immunology and at that time, immunology was considered somewhat of a soft science. Here we have some mechanisms that protect us from infection, protect us from parasites, protect us from cancer. How it works — nobody could imagine it. I hadn’t really thought about it a lot, but I took this course, and the professor was very good, he was an antibody guy. The antibody’s been known for a long time, but just about a year or two before I took the course, it laid out that there were two types of cells, T-cells and B-cells. T-cells cruise through your body; they’re all in tissues and blood and go around and look for stuff that ought not to be there and deal with it. “Ought not to be there,” what is that? What does that mean? How does something know that something ought not to be there? That’s what I want to know. The novelty of it, the complexity, it was just fascinating. Ironically enough, just bringing it up to current time, Max Cooper and Jacques Miller just won the Lasker [Award] this year for that work… all those years ago they first detected T-cells.

TT: Obviously immunology was a new science back then, and there are still a lot of questions about cancer, about our immune system that are still unanswered. Currently, is there any research that shows promise for the future of cancer research?

Allison: Well yeah, many. From this idea of blocking checkpoints to unleash the immune system to attack cancer, it’s proven to be successful against many, many types of cancer, but not all. For late-stage melanoma, in a clinical trial, now we’ve got a combination of drugs, between 55 and 60 percent of patients are alive three years after treatment. Quite a bit of progress there. Now, how do you take it to the next step, how do you get it to 100 percent there? Now we’re at maybe 40, 50 percent for kidney cancer. How do we get that out? There’s a lot of people now trying to understand how these different checkpoints interact. What are the conventional therapies that can be combined? If you have too much chemo, for example, you kill the immune cells too. There’s ways around that to get better responses. There’s other approaches of taking T-cells out of a patient and re-engineering them, targeted, to go back in, and kill cancer. That’s called CAR-T cells. There’s a lot of really creative stuff there.

TT: You did a study a while ago where after injecting mice with tumors, you realized that in some of the mice the tumors didn’t come back because their immune systems were able to fight them with antibodies that you developed. Do you believe that we can ever get to a point like that with humans, where our immune system could fight off any cancer?

Allison: Well, against that type of cancer, yes. We’re doing that now. But any cancer, all cancer? No, I don’t think so. “Cancer” is not a very useful word because there’s hundreds of cancers, depending on how you look at it. Some people say, do it by organ: breast cancer, bile cancer. Molecular biologists tend to look at it as KRAS cancer. A RAS mutation can cause many different kinds of cancer, so one way you might look at it is what caused them. 

But I know that there are some types of cancer which I think we will be able to cure. And by cure, I want to be careful here: people have treatment and are alive a decade or more later with no more treatment. I’m not talking about six months or a year. Maybe five years — I don’t know what the precise time is — but you have to look at the data. You can look at the survival curves, and there’s a point where they go flat. Nobody’s dying of cancer anymore then. After that point, I can start saying, those people, they don’t need to worry that it’s going to come back.

I think we will make slow progress on some types of tumors; it’s just going to take many more years of studying. At least the difference between now and several years ago is now we know it works. Until 2011, when the FDA finally approved ipilimumab, the question was can we do it at all, and now we know, yes we can. The question is how do we do it better with more types of cancer. The good news is also that we’ve got so many more of these tools, like conventional therapies. Surgery, radiation and chemo, any of them can be combined.

TT: Ipilimumab was approved decades after you first made the discovery in your lab that this was a possible way of curing cancer. Based on your interactions with the pharma industry and this whole process of FDA trials, are there any policy changes that you think would make it easier for patients to access the benefits of the latest cancer research?

Allison: There are, but just to be fair to the FDA, they adapted a lot. I hope that in the future, some scientists come up with good surrogate endpoints, so we don’t have to go all the way through doing our survival trial to decide whether it should be approved. We’ve got to be able to accurately predict that; we’re not there yet, I don’t think.

TT: Switching gears slightly, something I found interesting from the documentary is how you fought against teachers and lawmakers who tried to ban teaching evolution. Do you think that science education still faces similar dangers and if so, what do we need to do to ensure that curriculums are scientifically accurate?

Allison: Well, as to the question about whether there’s still dangers, it’s absolutely true. It’s an interesting issue though because the only places in the world where evolution is an issue are the US and radical Islamic states. The rest of the world has no problem with evolution coexisting with religion. It really does get in the way of teaching science. What I crusaded in Texas — there was a group that was trying to teach creation science as a science. Well, I said, use your creation science to tell me how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. They call it science, it’s just bollocks, it’s just anti-scientific. Now, with facts and alternative facts — potentially an even more serious danger, the denial of obvious facts — talking about climate or anything, we seem to have gotten away from trust in objective reality. The data tells us it’s a serious issue. There are facts, there are consequences.

TT: What advice would you give to high school or college students who are interested in research in this environment where there seems to be a decline in trust in science?

Allison: Tough it up. Do what you want to do. Don’t worry about that. You got to be interested in understanding how stuff works, taking things apart, putting them back together. You got to be able to learn. Science is hard. If things were obvious, they’d be done already. The more you learn, the harder the questions are, the more important it is to generate good data, believe in data, work on the data. You can’t expect just the gratification; you got to take small steps, you know.

I guess what I’m saying is in order to do that, you got to love it. You got to say, this is what I want to do. To me, it’s more than just a profession. It’s got to be something you just want to do. Find something that really, really interests you. Work as hard as you can, satisfy your desire to understand. The first step is to get to lab.

This interview has been edited and cut for length and clarity.