Breakthrough @ SXSW – Documentary Spotlight Section

Science for most is not a very exciting thing to watch on the big screen. But when you have a renegade scientist who wins a Nobel Prize in Medecine due to the fact that he has brought us closer to finding a cure for cancer then you have people’s attention. Director Bill Haney (The Last Mountain, The Price of Sugar) realizes that Jim Allison’s story is one that has to be told.

Growing up in Alice, Texas, Jim’s life was surrounded by cancer. He was born in 1948 and his father was a doctor, his mother was a housewife and he had two brothers. Two of his mother’s brothers died of cancer – melanoma and lung. Then his mother got sick and was in bed a lot. She died from lymphoma when Jim was 11-years-old. This marked him.

He wanted to find a cure. The first experience he had with science was making bombs in the woods. It was the beginning of a lifetime of passion for what he did. At 16 he went to the University of Texas in Austin. Jim studied to be a biologist. He also indulged in drinking socially and playing the harmonica. During the summer of 1966 he met his future wife Malinda.

During his post grad he convinced his supervisor that he would work on something involving cancer. Begins to understand/believe that the immune system played a role in fighting cancer. T cells (or white blood cells) are in the blood and fight to keep you healthy. Jim knew they were the key to the cure.

After spending some time in California at Berkley, Jim moved he and his family back to Texas. At a lab he ran in Smithville during the late 70s, Jim began to study T cells and attempted to figure out how the T cells identified disease. A race was on to discover the secrets of the T cell. Finally partnered up with pharma giant Bristol Myers Squibb to conduct phase 2 and 3 of testing of a drug he discovered. All this time in the lab took a toll on Jim and Malinda’s marriage; they ended up divorcing.

For centuries scientists have looked for the cure for cancer. Now Jim Allison is name that means something in the science world. He has discovered the immune system’s role in defeating cancer. A big part of how he accomplished what he did was his perseverance; Jim never gave up despite what everyone around him said about the futility of what he was trying. Had plenty of hurdles including the fact that most of the science world did not consider immunology a valid science. He loved what he did; loved being in the lab.

Does not follow what conventional medecine does. We begin to understand that real science involves creativity. Without this there would be little progress.

The documentary is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, someone who Jim got to know during his time in San Diego. The meat of the film is made up of interviews with Jim, stock video footage, family home videos, and interviews with family, colleagues and friends.

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