The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biomedicine goes, in this tenth edition, to James P. Allison, for work that led to harnessing the immune system to combat cancer in patients and the development of new therapies.
Allison characterized a molecule called CTLA-4, which is displayed on the surface of T cells, an important class of cells in the immune system that can kill cancer cells. He showed that CTLA-4 normally acts as a brake on this function. In seminal experiments carried out in mice, he demonstrated that blockage of CTLA-4 with antibodies unleashes T cells, leading to the elimination of tumor cells. This approach has now provided clinical benefit to many cancer patients, and has stimulated the development of a new class of drugs employing the immune system to fight cancer.