To receive a cancer diagnosis, or have someone close to you be diagnosed with cancer, is a truly devastating experience. Around the world, cancer is the second most common cause of death.  In 2021, it’s expected that more than 1.9 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer, and more than 600,000 will die from the disease.  To lose someone to this disease is horrible, and the experience is that much worse if you’re a child losing a parent. That was the case for Nobel Prize-winning researcher James Allison, which inspired him to research a pioneering cancer treatment.
Affected By Cancer at Young Age
At the age of 11, Allison’s mother succumbed to lymphoma, a type of cancer that causes lymphocytes, special infection-fighting cells in your immune system, to change and experience out-of-control growth.  These lymphocyte cells can be found in your lymph nodes, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow.  Allison recalls his mother, at the end of her life, bedridden and burned from radiation treatments. The tragic loss of his mother was only the start. Eventually, he would lose two uncles to cancer and then his brother.
Experiencing that kind of loss, and loss at the hands of the same disease, is a traumatizing and world-shaping experience, though Allison doesn’t acknowledge very readily that cancer’s impact on his family and life would take him down the path he’s walked. “I guess doing something about cancer was always kind of there in my mind,” he said in an interview with TIME. 
But Allison has done something remarkable: he has discovered ways to use the body’s immune system to destroy cancer cells. “My mother’s death when I was young hit me hard. I didn’t realize how hard until later on,” he said. But he says that his tragic family story and his interest in science are divorced from one another and that his mission to beat cancer isn’t so much a story of revenge but scientific intrigue.
A Love for Science
Allison’s love of science began young, and his unwillingness to compromise with ignorance is noteworthy. In high school, Allison boycotted his biology class due to the school’s refusal to teach evolution. Eventually, Allison was allowed to take the class’s credit through a course taught at the University of Texas.
His early foray into a collegiate environment spurred his interest not just in biology and science, but in something very specific: tiny immune cells in the body called T cells. At the time, T cells weren’t exactly understood.
“Nobody really knew anything about them except that they cruised around the body and somehow recognized when something wasn’t right, did something about it and didn’t kill you in the process,” he told TIME. “How did they know what were self and what were nonself cells, and how did they know when to react and when to do nothing?”
Immune System May Hold Key to Developing a Cancer Treatment
Allison believed that T cells may hold the key to defeating cancer, and that it was simply a matter of convincing the T cells that the cancer cells are foreign invaders – that they don’t belong in the body. Following that hypothesis, Allison started experimenting.