When director Bill Haney decided to make a documentary about cancer immunotherapy, a close friend told him that if he wanted “somebody colorful” to tell the story, there was one clear choice: James P. Allison, Ph.D., director of the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) Scientific Advisory Council.
It’s easy to understand why, as anyone who knows Dr. Allison, or “Jim,” as most know him, can attest. Haney’s choice to focus the story of cancer immunotherapy on Allison and his life’s work was prophetic—or really good luck. Shortly after the filming of Jim Allison: Breakthrough began, he was named recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, along with Dr. Tasuku Honjo, and became, in many ways, the global face of cancer immunotherapy.
From the camaraderie-building parties he regularly hosted with his lab members to his decades-long friendship with country music star Willie Nelson, Allison shatters the stereotype of the “all work, no play” scientist. This fondness for having a good time with friends and colleagues didn’t preclude his curiosity either. As Allison and others recount in the film, more than one genius scientific idea was hatched over drinks in a neighborhood bar.
Cutting loose certainly has its place, and Jim is not one to disappoint in that department. But what shines through most in the film, though, is Allison’s dogged determination to find a cure for cancer, a quest that was—and continues to be—fueled by his repeated brushes with the disease and the loss of loved ones. At age ten, he lost his mother to lymphoma, and later in life he watched two uncles and a brother succumb to the disease. He has had multiple bouts himself. No one could doubt his conviction, but many at the time felt it was misplaced, scientifically. Jim chose to ignore the naysayers and tested his ideas until he realized conclusively that he had found something marvelous: the key to unleashing our own immune system as a powerful weapon against cancer.
While others in the field had been exploring ways to activate “go” signals in the immune system, Allison realized that it takes more than just “stepping on the gas” when trying to turn the immune system against cancer. One also had to “release the brake”—in this case, a molecule called CTLA-4 that stops T cells from attacking—in order to overcome the immune system’s reluctance to attack tumors. It took Allison several more years to convince companies—first Medarex, and then Bristol-Myers Squibb—to take a chance on testing his “checkpoint inhibitor” approach in clinical trials. Doubts persisted along the way, and the whole program was almost shelved, but eventually it became clear that he had discovered something that worked.
Advocate Katie Couric, Dr. Jim Allison, and Dr. Padmanee Sharma at a reception for Jim Allison: Breakthrough, hosted by Dada Films with The Cinema Society in New York City. Photo by Paul Bruinooge/PMC. Courtesy of Uncommon Productions.
In metastatic melanoma, one of the hardest-to-treat cancers at the time, the drug Allison designed, ipilimumab (Yervoy®), became the first to be proven in a randomized Phase III trial to help patients with this deadly cancer live longer than any other treatment. Sometimes the success has been so profound as to warrant the word “cure.” Two melanoma patients named Sharon who enrolled on those early trials have been cancer-free for fourteen years and eighteen years, respectively.
“If we can’t use the term ‘cure’ for them,” Allison told CRI, “there’s something wrong. After a while, people deserve the comfort of being able to say ‘I’m cured,’ not ‘I’ve got a manageable disease.’”
Since the FDA approval of ipilimumab (Yervoy®) for the treatment of metastatic melanoma in 2011—the first approval of an immune checkpoint-targeting immunotherapy—new immunotherapies and treatment protocols have improved care for several types of advanced cancers, and the list keeps growing. Regarding the incredible influence of his work, Allison said, “I did not imagine that it was going to have the impact that it did.... I thought there’d be some converts, but I didn’t think it’d make everyone want to become an immunologist.”
Allison’s daily life has also changed dramatically. In addition to “a lot more invitations to things,” more patients approach him—not only at the hospital in MD Anderson where they “have pictures of him everywhere”—but also on planes and in the grocery store. The tears these encounters inevitably bring out of Jim make it clear what these thankful visitors mean to him. Another life saved. Another painful loss avoided.
As for director Bill Haney—who also serves co-founder and CEO of Dragonfly Therapeutics and CEO of Skyhawk Therapeutics—he hopes his documentary can do more than just reveal how we might be able to solve problems in healthcare.
Dr. Jim Allison and director Bill Haney at the premiere of Jim Allison: Breakthrough, hosted by Dada Films with The Cinema Society in New York City. Photo by Paul Bruinooge/PMC. Courtesy of Uncommon Productions.
“I was interested in doing a documentary that united Americans. We live in a polarized time,” said Haney. “One of the blessings of Jim’s work is there are no Americans—rich, poor, northern, southern, red, blue—who are ‘pro-cancer.’ By watching the amazing work of Jim and his team of inspiring collaborators, we can see how to work together for the common good. The scientific revolution that Jim has sparked in immuno-oncology is changing the lives of millions of patients and their families, worldwide.”
At the Cancer Research Institute, we not only admire Jim for his scientific brilliance and ability to translate basic immunology into new cancer treatments, but we admire him also for his personal passion for finding a way, once and for all, to put an end to cancer.
“We’re not there yet,” Allison admits. “But we’ve got the first real glimmer of hope, the first real proof, that we can do it in some patients. It’s only a matter of time, and more research, until immunotherapy help—and even cure—all cancer patients. This is the breakthrough.”
Jim Allison: Breakthrough opens in theaters on September 27, 2019.
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UPDATE: Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on PBS's Independent Lens on April 27, 2020, at 10 p.m.
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Banner image: Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash