Doctors and researchers are the new superheroes, and in Texas, few don a cape bigger and brighter than Dr. James “Jim” Allison, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in battling cancer by treating the immune system — rather than the tumor. Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, has quietly and, often singularly, waged war with cancer utilizing this unique approach.
The soft-spoken trailblazer is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, which will air on PBS (locally, KERA-Channel 13) and its streaming channels on Monday, April 27 at 9 pm (check local listings for channel information). Lauded as “the most cheering film of the year” by the Washington Post, the film follows Allison’s personal journey to defeat cancer, inspired and driven by the disease that killed his mother.
Breakthrough is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, adding a distinct hint of Texana. (The film was a star at 2019's South by Southwest film festival.) The documentary charts the Alice, Texas, native as he enrolls at the University of Texas at Austin and ultimately cultivates an interest in T cells and the immune system — and begins to frequent Austin’s legendary music scene. Fascinated by the immune system’s power to protect the body from disease, Allison’s research soon focuses on how it can be used to treat cancer.
Viewers will find Allison charming, humble, and entertaining: the venerable doctor is also an accomplished blues harmonica player. Director Bill Haney weaves Allison’s personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 who soon enrolled in Allison’s clinical trials. Belvin has since been entirely cancer-free, according to press materials.
“We are facing a global health challenge that knows no boundaries or race or religion, and we are all relying on gifted and passionate scientists and healthcare workers to contain and ultimately beat this thing,” said Haney in a statement. “Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I’ll bet they become yours!”
Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.