Although nivolumab and other checkpoint inhibitors are being tested by drug companies, they owe their existence to federally backed basic science conducted at U.S. universities.

“This is absolutely publicly funded work,” says immunologist Gordon Freeman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He and fellow checkpoint-inhibition expert James Allison, an immunologist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, learned about cancer research in an NIH-funded program while in high school in Texas.

“NIH funding was critical for getting us to explore science, and ever since, NIH funding has been behind the development of our work,” Freeman says. “And soon, the taxpayers are going to get their money’s worth.”

Allison’s work in the 1990s led in 2011 to FDA’s licensing of ipilimumab, the first checkpoint inhibitor, against melanoma. Freeman and his wife, Arlene Sharpe, among others, made key discoveries about the role of PD-L1, a molecule in tumor cells, in part by examining genetic sequences made available by the Human Genome Project. Tasaku Honjo of Kyoto University in Japan and Yale’s Lieping Chen also made crucial discoveries.

Arthur Allen