The rise of immunotherapy hasn’t shifted that reality overnight, but it has sent a new jolt of energy into an age-old dream: that maybe, just maybe, medical science can turn terminal cancers into survivable conditions. ... In the past two years alone, the FDA has approved three second-generation checkpoint inhibitors, and two other arms of immunotherapy—cancer vaccines and a therapeutic approach known as adoptive T cell transfer, in which a patient’s own T cells are engineered outside the body and reinjected into the bloodstream—are showing ever-more-promising results. ... If immunotherapy leads the way to cancer cures in the coming decade, it’ll be tempting to look back on its development as inevitable, a breakthrough that was merely waiting for technology and biological research to make it possible. This would be true to some extent—scientists have hypothesized for over a century about the potential for the immune system to beat back tumors—but such a view would overlook the human choices and biases that shape the course of science. It would also overlook the power of small groups of individuals to spark major advances by bucking conventional wisdom and seeking out new frontiers. In other words, it would ignore the life of Jim Allison—a shaggy-haired, patchily bearded son of small-town South Texas whose creativity, diligence, and zest for pursuing a seemingly quixotic path far from the front lines of cancer research have added up to a revolution.
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The men and women who are trying to bring down cancer are starting to join forces rather than work alone. Together, they are winning a few of the battles against the world's fiercest disease. ... It's not like you don't have cancer and then one day you just do. Cancer—or, really, cancers, because cancer is not a single disease—happens when glitches in genes cause cells to grow out of control until they overtake the body, like a kudzu plant. Genes develop glitches all the time: There are roughly twenty thousand genes in the human body, any of which can get misspelled or chopped up. Bits can be inserted or deleted. Whole copies of genes can appear and disappear, or combine to form mutants. ... Cancer is not an ordinary disease. Cancer is the disease—a phenomenon that contains the whole of genetics and biology and human life in a single cell. It will take an army of researchers to defeat it.