The most compelling image sequences in the Breakthrough documentary, which premiered March 9 at South by Southwest, are the seconds when the face of immunologist James Allison, Ph.D., fills the frame amid superimposed images and film of his loved ones lost to cancer.
His mother. His uncles. His brother, Mike Allison, who lost his battle with metastatic prostate cancer one week before the immunologist’s own prostate cancer diagnosis.
Allison, 70, was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Japanese immunologist Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., for the discovery of cancer therapies that stimulate the immune system to attack tumor cells. Treatments developed from Allison’s work have extended the lives of thousands of people with advanced disease, though certain cancers have responded better to immunotherapy than others.
Breakthrough, directed by Bill Haney, follows Allison’s professional and personal journey over several decades. The film’s world premiere at South by Southwest (SXSW) brought Houston innovators to the epicenter of a festival celebrating the ways people push the limits of creativity and progress through film, music and interactive media.
Meet Jim Allison, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine, a stubborn man on a visionary quest to find a cure for cancer. #BreakthroughDoc makes its world premiere at #SXSW on March 9. www.breakthrough.movie
Posted by Breakthrough the Documentary on Monday, March 4, 2019
This is what a hero looks like
The film opens with a shot of downtown Alice, Texas, where Allison was raised by a father he describes as a “country doctor” and his doting mother, who died of lymphoma when he was 11. The soundtrack for that first scene is the scientist playing a melancholy tune on the harmonica.
With a pained voice all these decades later, Allison describes how his mother spent a lot of time in bed and how he remembers burns on her neck, which he later learned were the consequence of radiation.
Today, Allison is a researcher at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center who is fighting a third personal bout with cancer following a melanoma removal from his nose a few years ago.
The film is narrated by Midland-born Woody Harrelson, with music by the legendary Willie Nelson, who hails from a town north of Waco called Abbott, to create a “holy trinity of Texas,” Haney said.
Subtitled “This is What a Hero Looks Like,” the documentary tells a deeply Texan story laced with the Lone Star State’s culture, institutions, characters, places and music—namely country and blues. Allison earned his degrees from The University of Texas at Austin and honed his fascination with understanding how T cells operate in the immune system at an MD Anderson science park in Smithville. The mutual admiration between Nelson and Allison culminates in one of the final scenes of the film as the immunologist stands onstage with the outlaw country artist at Austin City Limits and plays “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” on the harmonica.
Allison discovered a way to block a protein on T cells that acts as a brake, thus freeing T cells to attack cancer. Specifically, he developed an antibody to block the checkpoint protein CTLA-4.The films ongoing threads weave through his work hard-play hard drama by revealing Allison’s confidence and doggedness. Those traits fueled his determination to unravel the mysteries of T cells and create a new tool to attack cancer, without the consequences associated with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
The film climaxes with Allison’s move from California to New York City to personally keep the research fire stoked. He had champions, such as medical oncologist Rachel Humphrey, M.D. She took the lead in convincing Bristol-Myers Squibb to invest millions into what became ipilimumab, a checkpoint inhibitor drug known as Yervoy that worked even though tumors got larger before they shrank. The company also settled on a different gauge for success—survival over time instead of early tumor shrinkage as the measure of the drug’s effectiveness. Clinical trials were complete in 2011 and the the drug was approved that year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Most of the people who appear in the film—Allison’s current wife and research collaborator, MD Anderson oncologist Padmanee “Pam” Sharma, M.D., Ph.D.; his former wife, Malinda Allison, who was married to him for two decades while he chased his dream of understanding T cells; Sharon Belvin, who received his immunotherapy treatment in a trial, became, in 2006, the first patient that he met and remains cancer-free to this day; as well as fellow researchers, Bristol-Myers Squibb executives and his college professor—were in the audience at the premiere and sprang to their feet when asked to stand.
Immunotherapy story is not finished
In a Q&A with the audience after the hourlong film, Haney explained his interest in telling this story and finding a standout in the “immuno-oncology revolution” who could lead a documentary.
“There was only one person,” Haney said. “In a world where imaginative work is often thought of as being done by folks like me—filmmakers, poets, painters, sculptors, actors—I wanted to focus on the extraordinary creative work of scientists.”
He also wanted to show that there are compelling characters committed to solving the world’s biggest challenges.
“Jim and the extraordinary people—a number of whom are here today—have shown us exactly what a team of gifted folks led by an inspiring, empathetic, extraordinary leader with a real sense of imaginative purpose can do if they work collaboratively, if they use real facts to form conclusions, they test, if they share their information, if they partner with a bigger community. Look what science has done. These problems aren’t insurmountable; they just have to be surmounted by thoughtful, purposeful people focused on things bigger than themselves.”
Reaction of 2018 #NobelPrize laureate, immunologist & cancer researcher Jim Allison, Ph.D., of #Houston’s @MDAndersonNews after #SXSW2019 world premiere of the “Breakthrough” documentary about his quest to attack #cancer with the immune system. #TMCatSXSW #cancercuredoc pic.twitter.com/DwC6FDcbOA
— Texas Medical Center (@TXMedCenter) March 10, 2019
Allison, who is the chair of immunology at MD Anderson and the cancer center’s first Nobel laureate, said he was overwhelmed to see so many of his years of research compressed into a film.
“It was 15 years-plus of being frustrated,” he said. “Luckily, there were a lot of people who worked with me and kept the lights on.”
He also emphasized that the immunotherapy story is not finished.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to figure out how to bring it to everybody,” Allison said. “It’s a journey in progress.”
Return The Favor: Glowing green for Veterans https://t.co/w7LwFweRyD via @abc27News
@j_rodricks1 @MJEjags @katyisd We are so grateful for these blood donations. They make a huge difference in our cancer patients’ lives. Thank you.
Thousands of patients in need of heart surgery may soon have a new option. Read more: https://t.co/3p9SO6C3xz. https://t.co/PZ71Ui3vkB
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@MDMagazine Thanks for the shout-out
After a surprise diagnosis at age 36, Paula Carrillo finds success with overcoming stage 2A #colorectalcancer with Dr. Michael Overman: https://t.co/iVnpQGygSR #CancerMoonshot #endcancer
@GKHoustonMethod Thanks for the shout-out
@bernd_montag @SiemensHealth Appreciate the shout-out
Two of the graduate education programs at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth were ranked among the highest in the nation in the just-released 2020 edition of the Best Graduate Schools guide by U.S. News and World Report.
Veteran reopens family business in Sweetwater https://t.co/no8JZ6xvjW via @MCADnews
Angiogenesis is the process of creating new blood vessels. Learn how angiogenesis inhibitors work in treating cancer: https://t.co/z42nWglE58 #endcancer
U.S. Department of Veterans AffairsVeteransAffairs
Today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Army Veteran Aida Nancy Sanchez. Aida served during the Vietnam War from 1952 to 1976.Aida was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in November 1931. She graduated at the age of 15 and won a scholarship to attend St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana. She graduated in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry. Upon graduation, she applied and was accepted into the army physical therapy school program with an age waiver due to being under 21 at the time. Aida then headed to Fort Sam Houston, Texas to attend and graduate from the program in 1953. This is where she also met then General Dwight Eisenhower. Afterwards, she was assigned to the Brooke Army Medical Centre at Fort Sam Houston then to Fitzsimmons Army General Hospital in Denver, Colorado around 1956. During this assignment, Aida met President Eisenhower when he came to visit his friend whom was her patient. She stated that he remembered her from the physical therapy school and sent a pot of stew he made a day or two after the visit.After she completed her assignment at Fitzsimmons, she was sent to Rodriguez Army Hospital in Puerto Rico until she was discharged from active duty and went into the army reserves for two years. During that time, Aida worked for the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois for a year before becoming the Director of the Bureau of Crippled Children within the Department of Health of Puerto Rico. During her time in Puerto Rico, she received a letter from the Department of Defense stating that they needed more physical therapists, so she decided to return to active duty. Her first assignment was the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center, then she was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for a year or two. Afterwards, Aida was sent to Fort Myer, Virginia to establish a physical therapy clinic within the Andrew Rader Clinic at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Once setting up the unit, Aida was sent to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and upon graduation was assigned to Letterman Army Medical Center to oversee the clinical affiliations of five universities located near the hospital.Aida’s next assignment was to become the assistant chief of physical therapy at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii before she received orders to deploy in support of the Vietnam War in 1970. She was originally sent to the Army hospital in Saigon to replace the physical therapist but was routed to the 95th Evacuation Hospital near Da Nang to establish the first physical therapy clinic within the hospital. During her tour of duty, Aida was extended to deploy to Cambodia and assist then President Lon Nol because she had previously helped him during his stay at the Tripler Army Medical Center. She was constantly flying back and forth between Vietnam and Cambodia to help the president get physically better. She assisted many American and Cambodian soldiers and citizens with their physical therapy needs while deployed. After Aida redeployed, she was sent to Fort Gordon as the chief physical therapist who oversaw the transfer of the physical therapy clinic from older barracks into the newly built Eisenhower Army Medical Center. It took about six years to complete the task and Aida retired as a Lieutenant Colonel shortly after with about 24 years of service.Thank you for your service, Aida!
Join us, @TexasChildrens and @SPARKforAutism at a Community Awareness Research Event for underrepresented communities this Saturday. Register here: https://t.co/uNhKL7aXnM #autism #autismresearch https://t.co/KBpDj7yRQD
Baylor College of MedicineBaylorCollegeOfMedicine
Learn how Dr. Lisa Hollier is helping to shine a spotlight on maternal mortality and working to make childbirth safer for women around the world. #OBGYN
MD Anderson Cancer CenterMDAnderson
"With all of this support and love, it’s difficult to not be positive. Of course, some days were harder than others. I still remember how weak I sometimes felt and how uncomfortable it was to wear a pump after chemo," says Paula Carrillo."Still, I won’t complain. Despite the sudden bad news, I got a second chance, thanks to my family, my friends and my team at MD Anderson." #endcancer