In his documentary Breakthrough, director Bill Haney takes on a Texas-sized challenge telling the epic story of Nobel prize-winning Ph.D. immunologist Jim Allison’s groundbreaking cancer work. Woody Harrelson narrates, adding to the Lone Star vibe with his own Midland, Texas accent.
Jim Allison was inspired by his 8th-grade math teacher and mentor to study science. He finished High School early and went to the University of Texas in Austin. He grew up a straight-talking, independent-minded scientist. He was always a character, finding his own way through the cultures of academia and research.
When he began working in research, results of an early experiment hinted that it might be possible to treat cancer by guiding the immune system to recognize it as a threat. Allison explored this notion of cancer treatment, called immunotherapy, and eventually discovered a mechanism that can encourage immune system T-cells to attack cancer as they would a virus or an invading bacteria.
Allison is no stranger to cancer in his own personal experience. His mother died of lymphoma when he was eleven. He had uncles who died of various cancers, and later in his life, his brother died of prostate cancer. Allison himself has suffered both prostate cancer and melanoma.
Interlaced with the life and work of Jim Allison, Haney presents Sharon Belvin, who was diagnosed with stage four melanoma at age 22 and given no hope to survive. As a last resort, she participated in the trial study of Allison’s immunotherapy drug, ipilimumab (who names these things?) and the drug cured her: the tumors were completely erased. In her 30’s now, married with 2 children, she has been in remission since that time. She describes the emotional moment when she met Allison and thanked him for her life.
“…discovered a mechanism that can encourage immune system T-cells to attack cancer …“
Allison poured all of his time and attention into the research. It became his world. He iced out his family in favor of his obsessive work to get the drug refined and into testing, sacrificing everything for this singular pursuit. He won the Nobel but paid a huge price.
The film wanders slightly into the cliche narrative trap of painting the protagonist as a plucky hero who believes he is right, with a shining light of faith deep inside, guided by a mysterious inner voice. Not so here. Make no mistake, Allison didn’t believe anything. He knew. He had the predictable, repeatable results of his experiments and peer review. He understood the T-cell mechanism, and he knew it could be used to treat cancer. A pharmaceutical rep says at one point “he believed the data,” which is redundant… data does not need to be believed. Data needs to be understood by someone with the intelligence, training, and vision to grasp what can be done with it.
The hurdle Allison had to get over was to help other people understand the science, and convince them there might be enough return on investment to risk lengthy, expensive human trials. Big Pharma is “for profit.” The current opioid crisis should make that pretty clear.
We learn in the film the personal side of Allison who loves whiskey and Willie Nelson; and likes to party with his colleagues. He’s an accomplished player of blues harmonica and not just a nerd stuck in a lab with test tubes and computer monitors. Sometimes the parties are in the lab. The film is rich with images of Allison’s life and the people around him, with Texas music to accompany. Simple CGI graphics help explain the science, and overall, this film is as much fun to watch as it is informative.
Jim Allison is the Hunter Thompson of research: hard working, hard drinking, no tolerance for bullshit, a little odd, and uninterested in pursuing any mode that’s been tried before. He is direct and disarming. His tenacity is legendary. His passion for life, science, and making the world a better place is extraordinary.
In a field you’d never think of as having rock stars, Allison is a rock star of immunology. The filmmaker, Bill Haney, is a rock star among documentarians for bringing us this wonderful, hopeful film about a man and a Breakthrough achievement.
Breakthrough (2019) Directed by Bill Haney. Starring Woody Harrelson, Jim Allison. Breakthrough screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
8 out of 10