Arts documentary review

Jim Allison and T-cells finally break through to the spotlight

Nobel Laureate Jim Allison fights cancer and skepticism in Bill Haney’s informative documentary

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Jim Allison in Bill Haney's 'Breakthrough.'

Jim Allison: Breakthrough
Directed by Bill Haney
Screenplay by Bill Haney
Starring Jim Allison, Woody Harrelson
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

Max Krummel, a graduate research assistant under Jim Allison in the ’90s, describes how immunology was not considered a science back then, comparing Allison’s lab to a pirate ship. Tyler Jacks, the director of our own Koch Institute, recalls how he and his mainstream colleagues once ignored Allison’s immuno-oncology work. These are just two of many, many interviews with experts, journalists, and more detailing the intense skepticism facing Allison’s work and Allison’s hard-headed approach against it.

The documentary follows Allison’s arduous path from his childhood in Alice, Texas to his Nobel Prize last year. It employs a common framing device: displaying footage of the Nobel Prize ceremony early on before taking it back and following a generally chronological sequence. 

Much like Allison’s real journey, the documentary jumps around and occasionally leaves you confused, but turns out to mostly make sense in the end. For instance, the middle of the film somewhat abruptly takes a break from Jim Allison to meet Sharon Belvin. Eventually, we find out that Belvin was diagnosed with melanoma and turned to a clinical trial of Ipilimumab, a drug developed from Allison’s research, after chemotherapy and other drugs failed her. In one of the most heartwarming moments of the film, she remembers feeling overwhelmed meeting Allison in 2006 and tells us that she has been in remission ever since.

Among other things, director Bill Haney weaves intriguing personal aspects in with the science, which effectively enhances his unique multidimensional portrait of Jim Allison. First of all, the film opens with Allison playing the harmonica, an instrument that makes several reappearances, including one with Willie Nelson. We also learn about his personal connection to his research: his mother, two of his uncles, and his brother died from cancer. In another tidbit, his clashes with those who tried to outlaw teaching evolution in public schools demonstrate his clear commitment to science.

Overall, Haney plays a bit of hopscotch, but in the end, he adequately paints a picture of who Jim Allison is: hard-headed, creative, passionate, and most importantly, someone who values rigorous scientific experiments over convention and assumptions. It’s an important and timeless lesson because we still need more pioneers like Allison:  immuno-oncology doesn’t work for everyone. T-cells were discovered while Allison was in college; who knows if something discovered today will be the next breakthrough?