Jim Allison: Breakthrough

They call him surf cowboy…

(2019) Documentary (DadaJim Allison, Woody Harrelson (narrator), Willie Nelson, Sharon Belvin, Malinda Allison, Dr. Jedd Wolchok, Andrew Pollack, Eric Benson, Murphy Allison, G. Barrie Kitto, Lewis Lanier, Tyler Jacks, Jeffrey Bluestone, Max Krummel, Alan Korman, Nils Lonberg, Dr. Elliott Sigal, Rachel Humphrey, Padmee Sharma. Directed by Bill Haney

 

Occasionally, you see a documentary that resonates with you because of the place and time that you’re in. It’s the cinematic version of all the planets aligning to smite the viewer with something so personal, so relevant to the viewer that one can’t help but be sucked in.

Jim Allison is a Texas iconoclast with a scruffy beard, a wild mane of hair and a collection of Hawaiian shirts that would shame Magnum, P.I. He plays blues harmonica with such luminaries as Willie Nelson but that’s more of a hobby. You see, when Jim Allison isn’t busy blowing his harp or fighting the powers that be in Texas education regarding the teaching of creationism in schools, he is developing a cure for cancer.

This particularly hits home for me since in May I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and just this past Wednesday I had surgery to have it removed. This type of cancer is the same that Jim’s brother Mike was stricken with and eventually succumbed to. Jim’s mom also passed from lymphoma when Jim was just 11 years old; it was then that the seeds of beating this dread disease were planted in him.

Jim went the route of immunotherapy, using the body’s own immune system to beat cancer. The T-cell is one of the components of white blood cells that seek out cells that are causing harm in the body. Cancer cells have managed to figure out a way to turn off the receptors in T-cells which effectively renders them invisible to the body’s immune system, allowing them to flourish and grow until it’s all over but the funeral arrangements.

Jim developed a drug with the odd name of Ipilimumab which faced a daunting task to make it from the lab to the pharmacy. A tremendous amount of research would be needed before the FDA would approve the drug, the kind of money only Big Pharma can provide and to be bloody honest Big Pharma has a reputation to be more about treating cancer than curing it. However, Bristol Myers Squibb, one of the biggest of Big Pharma, led by Dr. Rachel Humphrey, decided that the research Jim had conducted was promising. The rest, as they say, is history. Jim’s dogged persistence had a great deal to do with his success, but it also cost him his marriage as his wife Malinda like most human beings didn’t have an inexhaustible well of patience.

The movie is essentially a whole lot of talking head interviews interspersed with some nifty computer graphics depicting how T-cells work and other medical matters. One of the most compelling interviews is with Sharon Belvin, at the time a 22-year-old newlywed who was diagnosed with melanoma, essentially a death sentence. She was part of one of the first to participate in clinical trials for the drug and eventually became the first patient to use the drug that Allison met, one of the most emotional scenes in the film.

Much of the science went right over my head – there’s a reason I’m a film critic and not a research scientist – and some might find the scientific sequences thick. However, Jim’s “I gotta be me” personality and perseverance in the face of widespread disbelief on the part of his colleagues and often outright disrespect are some of the highlights of the film.

I’m hoping that I don’t need to use drugs like ipilimumab in the future; I’m hopeful that the cancer was caught early enough that the surgical removal of my prostate will leave me free of cancer for years to come. There are no guarantees when it comes to the Big C, however, and it’s comforting to know that there are drugs and methods out there that may extend my life many years beyond what prostate cancer patients in years past were able to survive so if I rate the documentary on the high side, I think I can be excused for that.

REASONS TO SEE: A really close look at how important research is done. Portrait of a Texas iconoclast.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the science is a bit dense.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Allison shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Tasuku Honjo of Japan in 2018.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire in the Blood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Omaha

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