Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison is used to being considered something of a troublemaker. When he was a kid growing up in small-town Alice, Texas, he battled with his high school science teacher, who refused to teach or even speak of evolution. Angered by Allison’s insistence, the teacher would paddle him regularly, he says, just for walking down the hallway. But Allison didn’t back down. “That’s the way it is, you know. If you don’t agree with something, you need to stand your ground. And if it hurts, it hurts,” he says, his voice trailing off. “It’s the way it is.”
It’s a fitting sentiment for Allison’s life, chronicled in Breakthrough, a documentary premiering at SXSW, from growing up in South Texas to accepting his Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in Sweden in December. Allison, now chair of immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, won for developing the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug, a life-saving treatment for melanoma patients who otherwise had little chance of survival. But it hasn’t been an easy path.
When he was 11 years old, Allison’s mom died from cancer, followed by two uncles. Driven by this family history to find a cure, Allison became convinced that the body’s immune system could be harnessed to fight cancer. But many other cancer researchers thought he was wasting his time. For years he tried to convince drug companies to take a leap of faith and invest massive amounts of money in developing a treatment that he was certain would be lifesaving. He was right. But in the meantime, his brother got cancer while Allison was still fighting to get his drug approved; he died before he could try to save him. Allison has said that hearing from patients who’ve been “cured” make it all worth it; he tears up on camera while reading aloud a letter from the wife of one of those patients. Sometimes, standing up for what you believe in hurts.
Breakthrough is an engaging and entertaining film because Allison is a fascinating subject. He’s blunt and honest and colorful. His enthusiasm for T-cells is — excuse me — infectious. He plays harmonica in a band of immunologists called the Checkpoints. He’s performed with Willie Nelson, whose music is featured in the documentary. His story is inspiring, and he’s happy to share it. When I interviewed Allison for the Observer this fall, and he revealed that he was undergoing treatment for his third bout of cancer, a communications person jumped in as he began to detail a particularly unpleasant treatment for his bladder cancer. “You can stop,” he told Allison with a laugh.
For those of us who have followed Allison and his work, Breakthrough feels very familiar. The story, of course, is the same, and so are many of the details. For example, describing his experience testifying in 1981 at the Texas Legislature against a bill mandating teaching creationism in schools, Allison recalls the same “cartoon” argument against evolution in the film as in our interview: “‘You put a Ford in a field, it rusts; it don’t turn into no Cadillac.”
The similarity isn’t unexpected, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Part of the appeal for me watching this film was to put a face and voice to the names I already knew. Interviews with people in Allison’s lab and those who worked on getting the drug, ipilimumab, to market underscore the long and laborious road to approval. Also included is Shannon Belvin, diagnosed with advanced melanoma at just 22, who didn’t respond to cancer treatments until she became one of first patients healed by Allison’s drug. Her story is a powerful testament to his vital work, but at times the presentation feels overdone and gratuitous, particularly excessive footage of her exercising, and an odd clip at the very end that disrupts an otherwise effective conclusion. Selfishly, as a Texas journalist, I was hoping for more exploration of Allison’s childhood, growing up in rural Texas, where science itself could be so taboo.
A lot has changed since cancer took Allison’s mom far too soon, and the young scientist fought to get a complete biology education. But change is also slow. Allison continues to develop his treatment for other types of cancer. His own battle with the disease continues. And he and others continue to fight for science, in Texas and nationwide. The Texas House chamber where Allison testified on evolution nearly 40 years ago looks the same in Breakthrough as it does now. It’s the same place Governor Greg Abbott honored Allison at his State of the State address last month, saying his Nobel Prize proves “the minds of Texas are changing the world.” And it’s the same place where a bill was filed last session calling evolution controversial, as the state school board continues to debate its inclusion in science classrooms.