James P. Allison – Immunologist in a Rock Band
2018.07.03
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Inaugural Tang Prize Biopharmaceutical Science laureate James P. Allison talked passionately about immunotherapy, a life-long research interest of his, in the Masters’ Forum during the Tang Prize Week. The audience listened attentively how the immune system protects our body from pathogen and abnormal cells and the importance of an “immune checkpoint.” The immune checkpoint ensures the immune system picks up the right target. When the immune checkpoint does not function properly, tumor cells will not be identified and spared by the immune system. Unlike most of his peers, Allison proposed to block the “off” signal of the immune checkpoint, such that the immune system remains “on”, tumor cells can hardly escape the screening and subsequently be removed.

A Family Suffered from Cancer

When Allison was 11, his mother died of lymphoma. Two uncles lost battles against lung cancer and melanoma. “My mother had radiation therapy that left her skin burned and her body gaunt,” said Allison. His uncle had chemotherapy and wilted away not much different. The side effects of cancer therapy overwhelmed Allison’s family. When he studied immunology, the idea of immunotherapy lingered in his mind. He then embarked the journey of cancer immunotherapy research. Immunotherapy is not new itself. It first appeared back in the 19th century, but remained elusive by the time due to the lack of suitable scientific tool to verify its effectiveness. However, now “immunotherapy has taken its place in the field as the fourth pillar of the cancer therapy,” Allison assures.

When Allison takes off his lab coat, he turns into a harmonica player in “The CheckPoints” band. The band consists of immunotherapy scientists and oncologists as players or singers. The name “The CheckPoints” came from the key of the immunotherapy – immune checkpoint. The CheckPoints is the official band of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC), which was previously known as The International Society for Biological Therapy for Cancer (iSBTc). The band performs at the SITC annual meeting every year. When these scientists and doctors are not busy looking after patients and doing life-saving research, they perform in many other places as well. For them, playing gigs helps relieve the stress in the invisible battle.

Coat Off, Band On

Allison donated his harmonica to the Tang Prize Foundation after he was awarded the Inaugural Tang Prize Biopharmaceutical Science laureate. He wrote in the letter, “my harmonica may look to others as a collection of brass, steel, and bamboo, but to me it’s much more.” This harmonica rests in a blue velvet lining case in a display cabinet at the Tang Prize Foundation. “Blues Harp” were engraved on the body of the harmonica. It is the most typical type of harmonica, but it bears the unique and intimate memories of Allison’s since he was a young man.

After more than a century since it was first coined, the journal Science named immunotherapy as Breakthrough of the Year for 2013. Immunotherapy becomes a rising star in cancer therapy. This is a collective success attributed to each and every one on the long and lonely journey of research. The CheckPoints ends every show with “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey. It is their story as well, about a group of people who “don’t stop believin’.”