The day after he accepted the AAI-Dana Foundation Award in Human Immunology Research, I sat down with the affable Jim Allison so that he could explain to me what his research was about and what it means for cancer patients and their loved ones.
The subsequent article, published on this Web site (and to be included in July’s print edition of Immunology in the News), examines a small sliver of the current research scene that goes by the name “immunotherapy.”
I knew the term and was familiar with the basic underlying science, but I had heard “immunotherapy” used only rarely, and never before I became an editor here (where immunology, along with brain science and arts education, is part of our daily three-course meal).
I wondered if the word wasn’t a fairly recent portmanteau, perhaps introduced to describe succinctly to a lay audience what is in fact a complex domain of modern medicine (or maybe to jazz up dull med school lectures). I asked him how long the term had been around.
Allison, with the patience of a man who doubtlessly has long-suffered such public ignorance, responded: “Oh, 80 or 100 years.”
Red-faced, I later slinked back to my books for an ultimately fruitless investigation into the word’s etymology. In the process, however, I learned about the William B. Coley, a popular candidate for the title “Father of Cancer Immunotherapy.”
Coley worked at the New York Cancer Hospital (now part of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where Allison is a researcher), where as a young surgeon in 1890 he treated a childhood friend of John D. Rockefeller Jr. in a tragic case that meant a great deal for the future of cancer research.
I found the story in the first chapter of “A Commotion in the Blood,” available for free here. It is impossible not to be moved by the tale of a young, adventurous woman, killed in her prime by an excruciating disease for which 19th century doctors had virtually no treatment.
That her death so devastated and inspired both one of our country’s great philanthropists and one of its pioneering cancer researchers makes this a medical drama that bests any “House, M.D.” or “Gray’s Anatomy” I’ve seen.
Coley devoted his life to studying biological vaccines for cancer, and his medical lineage can today be traced ahead to researchers such as Allison.
“Immunotherapy” may sound inscrutable, but behind the medical jargon is a history of loves lost and saved, doctors’ mad passions, medical miracles, deaths, and violent battles fought by microscope.
In truth, the reason one hears the term only rarely in public discussions of medicine is that, as Allison asserted in his lecture, the field has long been “thought of by too many as some sort of alternative medicine.”
Hopefully Allison and his fellow warriors change all that.