Allison grew up in Alice, Texas. At the young age of ten, his mother passed away from lymphoma and had two uncles pass away from cancer. He says these deaths made cancer top of mind for him as a child. Allison’s father wanted him to be a doctor, but his studies as a junior in high school led him to get the “research bug.”
In high school, Allison learned about T cells, which are a type of white blood cell that protects against infection. T cells were not well researched at the time, but he believed that if he uncovered more about them, it could lead to the discovery of a way to kill cancer cells without having to go through radiation or chemotherapy.
Allison’s research on T cells continued as he earned a doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin and did his postdoctoral fellowship in molecular immunology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. Allison’s biggest discoveries were uncovering proteins and receptors on the T cell, which act similar to the gas and brakes on a car.
“No one realized this braking mechanism needed to be turned off in order for the immune system to unleash a powerful attack on cancer,” Allison said in an interview with Johnson & Johnson. “With this discovery, we were able to figure out how to utilize this switchlike ability to temporarily disable the brakes and create treatments that effectively target cancer.”
Allison’s work led to a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that he shared with Japanese physician-scientist and immunologist Tasuku Honjo. Allison’s received many other awards as well, including the William B. Coley Award and the CRI-AACR Lloyd J. Old Award. He was also named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2017.
Allison himself is a cancer survivor. He has beaten both prostate cancer and melanoma and is currently fighting early-stage bladder cancer, as well. His research and discoveries in the field may have saved not only his own life, but the lives of countless other individuals battling cancer.
With the recent commemoration of World Cancer Day, we commend Allison for his inspiring commitment to improving the lives of others.