Science has progressed rapidly in the past century, but for all the answers it has provided, the process itself has become ever more mysterious, even frightening, to the average layperson. So documentary films like Bill Haney’s Jim Allison: Breakthrough are increasingly welcome and important because they help us understand scientists, what they do, and how they do it.
Allison is an immunologist originally from Texas who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2018. He’s a colorful character. In addition to being a brilliant research scientist, he’s a talented amateur musician who’s played with his friend Willie Nelson. It has been his personal crusade from an early age to come up with effective therapies to treat cancer.
A fight from the fringes
It has not been an easy journey. When Allison was starting out in the late 1970s and early ’80s, immunology was on the fringes of medical science. The establishment did not think immunology had potential for effectively fighting diseases like cancer. Allison, being an out-of-the-box thinker, suspected otherwise.
After a long and frustrating research process, he discovered the chemical processes cancer cells use to evade the immune system, as well as the process by which T-cells, the immune system’s frontline defenders, could be activated to attack tumors.
But finding a possible treatment was only the first step. The next step was clinical trials, and for that Allison needed to convince Big Pharma of his discovery’s worth. This was not easy, as the research community was skeptical and resistant to Allison’s ideas—not without reason, since up until that point immunotherapy had proven useless in treating diseases ranging from various cancers to AIDS.
A heroic and personal journey
But Allison was persistent. With the help of a few influential believers, he was able to convince pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in clinical trials, despite setbacks that would normally scuttle any other trial.
Haney does a wonderful job taking us through both the research and testing processes, carefully and clearly explaining (without condescension) the rarified science and the complicated testing procedure. Haney frames the story as a heroic journey, a stubborn iconoclast overcoming constant obstacles. In actuality, it was a very personal struggle as well: Allison had lost much of his family to cancer.
In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Haney recounts a meeting between Allison and one of the early participants in his new therapy’s trials. This patient had been diagnosed with metastatic lymphoma and given only months to live. By the time her determined doctor got her enrolled in Allison’s clinical trial, she had undergone extensive, devastating chemotherapy and radiation treatments to no effect. The treatment proved astonishingly effective, and in short order, she went into complete remission.
The patient’s doctor arranges for her to meet Allison. When Allison recounts the meeting, and other patients whom his therapy has cured, he breaks into tears when he thinks of what his discovery means to these people, of lives saved and futures regained that would otherwise have been lost. This glimpse into a scientist’s heart helps us understand the humanity that motivates these researchers to struggle for years to, in some way, make the world a better place.
To be clear, Allison’s discovery isn’t “the” cure for cancer—it’s not effective for everyone. But for those it does help, it has been and will be a godsend. Jim Allison: Breakthrough is an inspiring story, showing how one stubborn visionary can change the world for the better.
What, When, Where
Jim Allison: Breakthrough. Directed by Bill Haney. Opens October 4, 2019 at Ritz at the Bourse.