Jim Allison: Breakthrough


If I were to tell you that scientists have found a way for our bodies to cure cancer, would you label me a snake oil salesmen? Probably!

Jim Allison grew up in the sleepy town of Alice, Texas. As a youngster, Jim witnessed his mother and several relatives succumb to cancer – leaving an indelible mark on his consciousness.

Cancer kills around 9 million people annually. Jim Allison may have opened the door to find a cure.

He is an innovator and these creative scientists push medicine forward. Couple that with his Texas-sized passion for immunology (a science barely recognized as a true scientific field) and you have a scientist that many see as a maverick.

The immune system always fascinated Allison and when T-cells were discovered, he began focusing on their purpose for the immune system.

T-cells are at the center of our immune systems – they fight to keep us healthy. Allison was the first to discover T-cell receptors that allow the T-cell to identify a threat to the immune system in order to fight/eliminate it.

As Allison was studying and experimenting, he was also having a great time after hours. All work and no play creates a scientist in a vacuum and that stymies innovation.

Allison befriended Willie Nelson and actually sat in with him once or twice at local honkytonks. His harmonica wails a wild tune that belies the stoic nature of his scientific side. These casual settings also allowed him and his co-workers to rethink experimental directions as they replaced their antiseptic labs for smoke-filled bars.

Director Bill Haney works to balance the science with the man, as Jim Allison ignores the scientific drumbeats that guide many, digging deeper and discovering answers. The science is not heavy and is easy to understand, while Allison is portrayed as a scientist swimming upstream.

In addition to the fascinating explanation of the journey in unraveling the mysteries of immunology, the path Allison’s breakthrough traveled in coming to market is both unsettling and eye opening. The large drug companies weren’t interested in investing in a possible cure for cancer because there didn’t seem to be much profit in it. It took a large leap of faith and an even larger pocket book for Bristol-Meyers-Squibb (BMS) to bring Allison’s breakthrough to the public.

Where this documentary falters is simply that Allison is not a wildly interesting character. He is a brilliant scientist who thinks outside the box and follows his “gut,” something difficult to show on-screen. At one point Haney also introduces the concept of faith-based teaching vs. science-based teaching. This concept has little to do with this documentary except that Allison’s discoveries would never occur in a strictly faith-based environment, but this is a concept best addressed in an entirely different documentary and becomes a “head scratch” moment.

“Jim Allison: Breakthrough” recounts the story of a good ‘Ol Texas boy, (the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine). His march toward history as he shrugs off convention finds both a promising cancer treatment and just as importantly –hope for those who suffer this affliction.