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Interview: Nobel Prize-winner Jim Allison on new documentary, Breakthrough

Interview: Nobel Prize-winner Jim Allison on new documentary, Breakthrough

Jim Allison: Breakthrough is a new documentary from Director Bill Haney that chronicles the life work of Texan scientist, Jim Allison. Dr. Allison devoted his life to finding a cure for cancer. And fortunately for everyone around the world, Dr. Allison was quite successful with his research on t-cells. In fact, his game-changing cancer research led to him winning the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2018.

Dr. Allison developed an antibody that has now become ipilimumab (ipi). Ipi first treated malignant melanoma, but has now been approved for kidney and colorectal cancer. It doesn’t always work for all patients, but in close to 25% of patients with metastatic melanoma, it turned out to be the cure. In its simplest terms, ipi allows our own immune systems to fight against cancer. In doing so, immunotherapy has transformed cancer treatment in a way that should give us hope when it comes to the fight against cancer.  

For those who aren’t very scientifically-versed (like myself), this documentary walks you through Dr. Allison’s research in a way where the average audience can understand the information. Along with the fascinating aspects of his cancer research, we also learn quite a bit about Dr. Allison himself. We learn about his personal connections with cancer in his family over the years, his many challenges to keep his research going, his love of music, and even a quick story where he played harmonica with Willie Nelson.

Below is my full interview with Dr. Allison, who was kind enough to talk in-depth with me about the documentary and his ongoing research.

I want to start off by talking about how this documentary came together. Was it Director Bill Haney who first reached out to you about making this film?

Allison: Bill Haney contacted me. He is a good friend of Tyler Jacks, a Professor of Biology at MIT, who is a friend of mine. Tyler gave me a heads up a couple years ago that this friend of his is interested in making a movie about cancer and my efforts. So I got an email from Bill and he explained his vision for what he wanted to do. He made a lot of documentaries. Most of them were political subjects — such as pollution among other things — where people were taking sides.  He said he wanted to make something that everyone could get behind. He wanted to educate people about how science is done, and hopefully, engage young people into thinking that scientists can be positive role models.

You know, I was a little nervous because he’s going to make the film he’s going to make. I will be giving him my secrets and letting him into my house, and my life. It becomes a part of our life for the next year or two. Whatever happens, happens.

I came away from this documentary with a feeling of hope. The documentary gives us hope by showing us a cancer survivor named Sharon who benefited from your research. Are you still in touch with Sharon? And how does that feel when you hear back from people whose lives were saved because of your work?

Allison: It’s hard to describe. A lot of this did come about because of my family history and my mother. Although, I didn’t necessarily every day wake up trying to cure cancer. I woke up every day trying to understand the immune system. In Sharon’s case, she was the first patient that I met. She and I are really good friends. I learned a lot from her about the experience of being through such a horrible thing where people tell you that you are going to die over and over. And then all of a sudden one day, all of your tumors are gone. It was a mix of how good that feels and then at the same time how there’s this thought that maybe it will come back. I’m happy that I have the ability to see her and her two beautiful children now.

I meet people quite regularly. Walking through the clinic, it’s rare that more than a few days pass where somebody doesn’t come up to me. The other day, there were these three guys from Kentucky. The guy came over and said, “Hey are you that therapy guy?” He says to the other guy with him, “This is the guy that invented the drug that you are getting.” The guy comes up and hugs me. He tells me that he is three or four years out. And it’s been a miracle for him.

What do you hope immunotherapy will be able to accomplish in the future?

Allison: We can cure some people with some cancers. Like with melanoma, we can cure now. This is the disease, when we started, if you were diagnosed, you had a 50% chance of being alive after seven months. No drug ever increased that until immunotherapy came along. There are a lot of different cancers that respond; kidney, bladder, lung, liver, and many different kinds of cancers. Although, some don’t respond that well necessarily. But we are continuing to work on them.

But I think that’s what’s beginning to happen in a big way. People are asking if chemotherapy and radiation are going to disappear. I don’t think so. I think they are going to come into a new place, where you don’t try to cure the patient with chemotherapy and radiation, because to do that, you have to kill every last damn cancer cell. Every last one. The immune system is different. Once you have an immune response, it stays with you for the rest of your life. At the end of the day, killing tumor cells is what is going to alert the immune system that something is there to go after it. If we can learn together how to use more targeted chemotherapy and radiation for a shorter duration, it will kill enough tumor cells to get the immune system to take over. We will see some remarkable results.

Switching gears here away from your cancer research for a second, the documentary focuses a lot on your passion for music. What led you to the harmonica as your instrument of choice?

Allison: At first, I picked it up as a kid. I played it when we went camping with friends sitting around the campfire. As I got older, I started taking it a little more seriously. When I was a postdoc in San Diego, I started playing in a band for the first time. I started to lean towards blues, delta blues, Chicago blues and country and western, believe it or not. I just really love it. It’s something that gets my mind completely into the music. We have a band now called the Checkpoints. The second band in Houston is called the Checkmates.

You came upon a lot of roadblocks with your research over the years — whether it be funding or some other challenge — what were the things that kept you motivated to keep moving forward with your research for so many years?

Allison: I got into science because I love it and I like to understand how things work. I understand that along the way, there’s a lot of failure. If you are trying to figure out something important, and something new that nobody has thought of before, there’s no answer to your questions when you ask them. When you are trying to understand how t-cells are regulated, it’s pretty complex. I always felt that the question was important and you do whatever it takes to get the answer.

Jim Allison: Breakthrough opens October 4th at the Ritz at the Bourse Cinema.

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