I was the new nobel prize winner’s lab rat salon.com

If you want to know how to get a Nobel Prize, the obvious answer is: practice. The work that led to the development of treatments like Yervoy and Opdivo began seven decades ago in the small Texas town of Alice. Young Jim Allison was attracted to science, but didn’t have a particular leaning toward cancer. It’s just that cancer kept finding him. His mother died when he was 11, of lymphoma. Over the years, his uncles died of cancer. His brother. Friends. He faced it himself, twice.

Meanwhile, in Berkeley in the ’80s and early ’90s, he began to explore how T-cells can be manipulated to turn on and off certain responses in the immune system. The possibility that unlocking the secrets of the immune system could lead to breakthroughs in cancer treatment was not Allison’s idea — Dr.


William Coley innovated discoveries in the field nearly a century earlier. But the results in humans had always been sporadic, and usually only short term. Immunotherapy soon fell out favor with the development of more cutting edge approaches. As Allison told me in 2014, "The best advisors in the field said, ‘We don’t know much but to throw chemo and radiation and surgery at cancer.’" That "slash-burn-poison" approach remained the standard for decades.

You know what happens on the way to a revolutionary moment in the treatment of pernicious disease? A lot of people die. My doctors have stories that would break your heart, of countless patients and their families, over years and years and years, who died along the way from a cancer that ran amok in their bodies. Or who died in clinical trials along the way. In one immunotherapy drug trial similar to mine from just a few years ago, " 14 deaths appear related to the study drugs, including seven deaths associated with irAE [ immune-related adverse events]."

While I was still recovering from the surgery that revealed my cancer had moved into my lungs, a bright, bruise-colored tumor appeared on my back, announcing that my cancer had now also moved into my soft tissue. In 2011, your average life expectancy with metastatic melanoma was six to seven months — although with a form as aggressive as mine, you might get considerably less. Yervoy, the first immunotherapy treatment for melanoma had just been approved a few months before, with a rousing 20–30 percent success rate. In cancer, my oncologist told me, "that’s considered a home run." I knew all of that when she told me about a promising drug trial recruiting new patients, just one floor up from us at Sloan-Kettering.

Today, immunotherapy treatments like the one Dr. Allison helped lay the groundwork for — along with other forms of cancer immunotherapy — have been approved by the FDA for a variety of cancers including bladder and kidney. And even more treatments are in trial. It’s still an imperfect, often scary and frustrating process for doctors, researchers and patients. But there’s more hope for more of us than ever.

The current median survival expectation for metastatic melanoma is about three years — which is great unless you’d like to live longer than three more years — and the success rate for my form of immunotherapy is roughly 60 percent. A few weeks ago, I attended the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, where Dr. Allison was being honored. I jokingly asked Dr. Allison when, after all his successes, he’d be ready to rest on his laurels. "When we’re at 100 percent," he told me.

Later that evening, we watched a video of a fellow patient sharing her story of late stage melanoma, and the treatment that enabled her to survive and raise a family. When I looked over at Jim Allison, he was wiping away tears. I’m sure a Nobel Prize is pretty sweet, but you don’t devote your entire life to a field of study considered fringe unless you really, really are in it to see people not die of cancer. You don’t put your chips down on one thing, for decades, unless you believe there’s something to it. Oh, and you’re brilliant. As he told the crowd as he accepted his prize, "The patients are waiting." I know every day that I won the lottery, because I was waiting when curious, motivated scientists were throwing themselves into a seemingly impossible quest: to one day put the words "cancers" and "cures" in the same sentence.

My normal Monday morning routine involves waking up, reluctantly checking the New York Times as the coffee brews, and then making loud angry noises at my phone. On October 1, however, my audible gasp was one of delight. And then I sent my kid off to school and I cried. Because the outcome of a risky experiment is that I get to make breakfast for my child. Because there are people in the world who somehow, in spite of all odds, remain curious, questioning and eternally hopeful. Because one of the worst things that ever happened to me gave me a chance to have one of the best unpaid jobs in the world as a cancer research lab rat, made possible by people like Dr. James Allison — harmonica player, Willie Nelson fan, and now, Nobel Prize winner.