New Documentary Profiles Dr. James P. Allison and His Nobel Prize–Winning Immunotherapy Research

Sep 24, 2019

Editor's note, April 22, 2020: Watch Jim Allison: Breakthrough on Monday, April 27, on PBS and as part of the "Independent Lens" series.

By A. Kate MacDougall

Revolutionary. Indomitable. Visionary. These are just a few of the words used by peers and colleagues to describe 2018 Nobel Prize recipient James P. “Jim” Allison, PhD, and his discovery of the immune system’s ability to combat cancer. Each of those qualities, along with the race to bring immunotherapy to patients and how the treatment is now changing lives and the way the world looks at science, are explored in the new documentary Jim Allison: Breakthrough.

The film, to be released in select theaters across the country starting on September 27, follows Dr. Allison’s life from his birth in the small town of Alice, TX, through his relentless quest to study the T cell and unmask its capabilities, to his receipt of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which he shared with immunologist Tasuku Honjo, MD, PhD, for their new approaches to immunotherapy.

“All good stories need a lead character who’s emotionally open and who’s suffered the slings and arrows of being an innovator,” said Bill Haney, writer, director, and producer of the documentary. “It's not easy to be a revolutionary, and it was not easy for Jim to persevere with these ideas. But there's a renegade quality to him that makes him completely comfortable questioning orthodoxy.”

In the film, Dr. Allison gives a firsthand account of his own personal experiences with cancer in his family and how those fueled his research and ultimately the creation of anti–CTLA-4 monoclonal antibody ipilimumab. The story is told through interviews with the scientist himself, as well as several of his colleagues and peers who were instrumental in bringing his ideas to fruition, including Jedd Wolchok, MD, PhD, FASCO, chief of the Melanoma & Immunotherapeutics Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) and a former member of the ASCO Board of Directors.

Breakthrough is a great human story of perseverance, the importance of creativity, and portraying a Nobel Laureate scientist as a human being, someone who is deeply affected by illness in his own family, and someone who has been an outspoken advocate for science for many decades,” Dr. Wolchok said.

This new film is the 17th production for Mr. Haney, who, in addition to being an accomplished filmmaker, is also an entrepreneur, inventor, and biotech CEO. In Breakthrough, he wanted to spotlight a topic that would unite viewers in a common purpose.

“North, south, east, west, black, white, red, blue, everybody's against cancer,” he said. “Because we all agree on the objective, we might actually be able to think about the means of pulling together to make a difference.”

The Journey to Prove an Idea

When ipilimumab entered the clinical trial phase at MSKCC in New York, Dr. Allison relocated to the institution to take over directorship of the Ludwig Center for Cancer Immunotherapy, but also to help push along the studies. Breakthrough describes how he combined forces with Rachel Humphrey, MD, former chief medical officer at CytomX Therapeutics and current ASCO member, who oversaw the drug’s early- and late-stage clinical development, as leader of the immuno-oncology division at Bristol-Myers Squibb, throughout all the ups and downs.

“Jim's contribution was seminal,” Dr. Humphrey said. “This movie shows how, while others may make important scientific contributions, tenaciously driving that discovery for the good of people makes all the difference. It's very inspiring for people who feel like they're sailing up the wind to keep doing what they're doing with the belief that it really might make a difference.”

The documentary details Dr. Humphrey’s role as a persistent champion for ipilimumab and all that it could offer patients, illustrating how pharmaceutical companies are partners in translating science into standards of care and why assembling the right team makes all the difference.

“The scientists are the most important thinkers, but the teams at the pharmaceutical companies really do play an important role in making those medicines a reality,” Dr. Humphrey said. “All of us work together with full hearts in research and development to make it all work.”

Changing Lives and the World of Science

Breakthrough also succeeds in bringing science out from the shadows of the laboratory and showing how it can deeply impact the lives of so many people. Interwoven into the tale of this immunotherapy’s scientific journey is the true story of Sharon, who was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma at age 22 and who is alive today thanks to ipilimumab.

As the documentary details, Sharon and her oncologist, Dr. Wolchok, had exhausted all the available treatment options for her cancer, including multiple rounds of chemotherapy, high-dose IL-2, and radiation for metastatic brain tumors. Dr. Wolchok suggested she consider enrolling in the ongoing clinical trial for ipilimumab at MSKCC. After being one of the first patients to be treated with the then-investigational drug, Sharon went on to have a complete response.

“When we were confident that the response was becoming durable after about a year, I asked if she would like to meet Jim, and she really jumped at that opportunity,” Dr. Wolchok said. “Jim similarly jumped at the opportunity to meet someone who directly benefited from his transformative science.”

Through Sharon’s story, Breakthrough humanizes the fruits of Dr. Allison’s labor and depicts the determination and fortitude that, while not often discussed, are inherent in scientific discovery.

“It's very important for the larger public to see that scientists can be true heroes, like Jim,” Dr. Wolchok said. “This film brings attention to what scientists have to go through to see their ideas through to a therapeutic goal—how many decades it took, how many doors Jim had to knock on, how many naysayers had to be proven wrong in order for this to succeed.”

And maybe most importantly, this documentary serves as inspiration to everyone—scientists, doctors, patients, caregivers—that major strides are being made in cancer research every day, saving more and more lives.

“If people with cancer worry that there's no progress, this documentary is going to help you see that a lot of wonderful people are working to drive real medicines,” Dr. Humphrey said, “and that this new idea of using the immune system to fight cancer is a robust, exciting new frontier.”

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