Nobel Prize Winner Dr James Allison Discusses the Need to Fund More Fundamental Science

Major discoveries only happen when there is funding for fundamental science, said James Allison, PhD, chair of the Department of Immunology, the Vivian L. Smith Distinguished Chair in Immunology, director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Research, executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and 2018 Nobel Prize cowinner in Medicine. He explained that he never would have discovered how to use the CTLA-4 protein to treat cancer if he hadn’t been trying to understand the mechanisms of T-cell activation.
What are the biggest challenges of translating discoveries made in the laboratory to the clinic?
Well, I think, first of all, just having enough funding to concentrate on fundamental science. The pressure, now, on everybody is to actually do translation stuff from the start. But, the truth is, you’re really not going to get any major discoveries that way. You have to do the fundamental science and understand mechanisms, and that’s where this whole CTLA-4 checkpoint blockade came from was not trying to cure cancer, it came from trying to understand the mechanisms of T-cell activation.

Once we understood that, I said, “Ah! This gives me an idea about a new way to treat cancer.” But I would just submit that no one would have ever, who was just trying to figure out ways to use the immune system to treat cancer, would have ever found CTLA-4. They would not have.

So, I think that’s the first thing, is to provide more funding for fundamental science and mechanisms that are potentially important for treating cancer, and then be aware of new discoveries and things that will take you along the way and help them jump over. They both need to be done, actually. I had a hard time for a few years actually finding anybody who would take a chance on what we were trying to do, because they didn’t understand the mechanism.

I think the answer is just more science. More hardcore science.
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