James P. Allison of Alice, Texas, was inspired to try to develop a cure for cancer when he was eleven years old in 1959. That year, Jim’s mother died of lymphoma. As the years went by, one brother died of prostate cancer and one developed metastatic melanoma. Jim, himself, has faced down cancer three times, so far, in his seventy-one years.
Said Jim of his life’s work and ambition: “If you’re gonna’ do these things, you oughta’ at least do things that help people.” He thought back to his own childhood and reminisced, “They thought I was a troublemaker. I just knew I was right…If you disagree with someone or something, you just have to stand your ground.” When he finally found a way to put his discovery into drug form, it took many years spent overcoming “all kinds of things that stood in the way.”
Young Jim’s father traveled frequently, so he often spent time with another family that had a son about his own age after his mother’s death and, always, he played the harmonica and relied on music to release some of the pain and the pressure in his life. His friendship with Willie Nelson is illustrated, with an appearance onstage at Austin City alongside his musical idol.
After graduating from high school at the tender age of 16 in 1965, Jim went on to become a researcher in the field of immunology—using the body’s own defense system to cure cancer tumors. It was for his discovery of a drug dubbed Ipilimumab or Ipi (known commercially as Yervoy) that he was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Stockholm for medicine or physiology.
BREAKTHROUGH, THE DOCUMENTARY
Director Bill Haney, winner of a Silver Hugo, the Gabriel Prize, short-listed for an Oscar, and winner of accolades from Marine Conservation, Genesis, Amnesty International and Earthwatch weaves an engrossing tale around Allison’s achievements, narrated by Hollywood’s Woody Harrelson. He inserts scenes of James Harrelson with his wife and son alongside the expert testimony of some of the other leading researchers in the field, including the University of Chicago’s Jeffrey Bluestone, whose own discovery challenged Ipi in the field at the time.
Another effective visual method for the audience was to find the dramatic patient—the one whose participation in the clinical trials for Ipi saved her life. That patient was Sharon Belvin, who was diagnosed with terminal melanoma at the age of 22. With metastatic melanoma, she was told she would not live more than 7 months. As we see in the film, Sharon has not only lived decades beyond her original diagnosis, she has been completely tumor-free since receiving Ipi, is married, and has two children.
We even get to have a happy ending of James Allison “getting the girl,” in this case, prominent fellow researcher Dr. Padmanee Sharma, whom he married after his marriage to wife Malinda fell victim to his work.
Jim struggles throughout to make it clear that Ipi is NOT an anti-cancer drug. It all started with the belief that the immune system played an important role in responding to cancer and that the T cells of the immune system needed to be studied. “I really wanted to understand T cells and the immune system,” James Allison says. Tyler Jacks, a fellow scientist, tells us: “Jim doesn’t care that he is not following convention. He’s an iconoclast. They are always thinking beyond the work. They’re creative people.” Jim felt that tumors caused T-cell receptors to turn off the immune system, but if you inserted an antibody, then the T-cells would be free to attack the tumor. His experiments with mice were amazing as the mice that had received the antibodies just before Christmas became tumor-free.
But now the real work began.
OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME
Jim spent ten years trying to get his discovery of the antibody that would turn the immune system into a fighting force against tumors made into a drug for cancer patients like Sharon Belvin. He had written his first paper (“Enhancement of Anti Tumor Immunology by CTLA-4”) in 1996, but things went South fast.
Interferon 2 was in the news then, but it took “two years and nobody would listen.” This is the period of time when Jim’s brother, Mike, was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in his fifties. Two of Jim’s uncles had also died of cancer. Jim’s urgency escalated. But clinical trials take deep pockets; no big pharma firms wanted to shell out for them. If a drug is deemed safe in Phase 1, it goes on to Phases 2 and 3. As one fellow researcher said on camera, “Mainstream medicine was ignoring the immunology crowd. And pharmaceutical companies don’t know if something is promising or deadly.”
James’ P. Allison’s drug, known commercially as Yervoy, became the first to extend the survival of patients with late-stage melanoma. Follow-up studies show 20 percent of those treated live for at least three years with many living beyond 10 years— unprecedented results. Additional research has extended this approach to new immune regulatory targets with drugs approved to treat certain types and stages of melanoma, lung, kidney, bladder, gastric, liver, cervical, colo-rectal cancer, and head and neck cancers as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The documentary premiered at SXSW on March 9th. If you have a close friend or loved one affected by cancer (and who doesn’t?) you should see this one.