A scientist who won the Nobel Prize for revolutionizing how we treat cancer says young scientists shouldn’t set out to cure the disease

Jim allison immunotherapy cancer

  • Jim Allison won the Nobel Prize last year for transforming the way that cancer is treated, along with Tasuku Honjo, a scientist at Kyoto University.
  • At the start of his career, Allison didn’t set out to cure cancer. Instead, he wanted to better understand how a part of the human immune system worked in the body. 
  • That led to immunotherapy treatments that fight cancer by using the body’s built-in immune system. 
  • His advice for young scientists is: "work on what really interests you, and you care about. Don’t worry if it has any impact on cancer, at least not when you’re working on it." 
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For Jim Allison, cancer has always been at the back of his mind. He’d lost many family members to the disease, including his mother when he was young, and is himself a cancer survivor.

But when Allison started off his scientific career decades ago, "I didn’t set out saying, ‘I’m going to cure cancer,’" Allison told Business Insider.

Instead, the scientist pursued something he found fascinating: the human immune system, which naturally fends off infections and disease.

Allison’s work in this area would pave the way for immunotherapy treatments, which use the body’s natural immune system to fend off cancer and transformed the way the disease is treated. For that, Allison and Tasuku Honjo won the Nobel Prize last year. 

So his advice for young scientists is to "work on what really interests you," Allison says. "Don’t worry about if it has any impact on cancer, at least not when you’re working on it."

Instead, "study the fundamental mechanisms until you really learn how things work," Allison added, speaking with Business Insider after a panel about cancer immunotherapy last month that was hosted by the nonprofit Cancer Research Institute

Read more: How the researchers who won the Nobel Prize in medicine transformed the way we treat cancer

Cancer cell

Allison, who holds a doctorate in biological sciences from The University of Texas at Austin, has long worked in academia conducting research about a component of the immune system called T cells.

A Texan and scientist through and through, he’s now the chair of the immunology department at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which was set up by the internet billionaire Sean Parker

At the most basic level, Allison’s passion has been to understand how diseased cells get noticed in the body by T cells. T cells then kill those sick cells.

"And that has nothing to do with cancer. Or everything, depending on how you look at it," he says. 

That scientific work was then harnessed for drugs that stimulate the immune system to fight cancer.

In any case, Allison says he wasn’t worried about where that research would lead. 

"Well, the immune system is important in many kinds of disease. I figured it would go somewhere," he said.

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