I think we’re in universal agreement when I say that we look forward to football season largely because it means Nobel season is right around the corner, right?
And with the first Nobel Prize of 2018, we’ve got the latest Nobel Prize affiliated with UC Berkeley.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded on Monday morning to Dr. James P. Allison and Dr. Tasuku Honjo for development of techniques that direct the immune system to attacking cancerous tumors.
This year’s #NobelPrize constitutes a landmark in our fight against cancer. The discovery made by the two Medicine Laureates takes advantage of the immune system’s ability to attack cancer cells by releasing the brakes on immune cells. pic.twitter.com/2mppP3NT19— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 1, 2018
The immune system—much like Evan Weaver or Jordan Kunaszyk—is great at attacking and punishing invading pathogens or bacteria that are trying to make us sick. But it sure would be terrible if in practice, these two destroyed our whole offense with their tackles, right? Similarly, our body wouldn’t function at its peak if our immune system were constantly attacking itself (and such autoimmune disorders are a problem in their own right), so our cells have systems in place to keep the immune system from attacking ourselves—think of non-contact jerseys for quarterbacks. Allison discovered an antibody (named ipilimumab and sold as Yervoy) that binds to certain receptors (CTLA-4) on immune cells; when the antibody binds to the cell, the cells are activated and start attacking tumor cells. The analogy being made in media is that Allison’s discovery is like releasing the emergency brake in a car.
Although Allison is no longer affiliated with Berkeley, this research was conducted while Allison was a Berkeley professor, so I think it’s more than fair to attribute this award in part to Cal. Allison adores Cal and his time here:
“I don’t know if I could have accomplished this work anywhere else than Berkeley. There were a lot of smart people to work with, and it felt like we could do almost anything. I always tell people that it was one of the happiest times of my life, with the academic environment, the enthusiasm, the students, the faculty.”
Allison was first introduced to this lovely environment when he joined the faculty in 1985 as a professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and Director of the Cancer Research Laboratory, but ultimately left the university to move to “New York to be closer to the drug companies shepherding his therapy through clinical trials” in 2004.
“Berkeley was my favorite place, and if I could have stayed there, I would have. But my research got to the point where all the animal work showed that checkpoint blockade had a lot of potential in people, and working with patients at Berkeley wasn’t possible. There’s no hospital, no patients.”
The news article linked above goes into a deep dive of the story of Allison’s discovery (without going too deep into the science, for those of you who made the right decision to not waste your lives on it), so I recommend you check it out. I stole the following video from that site and it features Allison and other Cal faculty, has a nice explanation of his discovery, and extols the greatness of Cal (along with an odd use of the word “frothing”).
For his discovery, Allison has already won the 2015 Lasker Award, recognizing “major contributions to medical science” and has now been recognized with the Nobel Prize. Going off the always-reliable Wikipedia, this is the 105th Nobel Prize affiliated with Cal. The University’s count is a little stricter—alumni, current faculty, or deceased winners who retired as Berkeley faculty. Personally, I think the place where the discovery was made is quite a worthy criterion, perhaps moreso than current faculty with the research performed elsewhere. Especially since Allison evidently adores Cal so.