He has earned a Nobel Prize.

He meets people who remain alive today as a result of his scientific research.

He has played harmonica behind Willie Nelson.

One might think that Jim Allison, at 71, would be satisfied to rest on his laurels.

Instead, he toils full time in his lab at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“What we had before was the question of does this work at all?” Allison said recently in a telephone interview from Houston. “We’re past that. We know it works. And the question is just how to make it work better.”

The reason Allison was co-winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine was his solution of the puzzle of how the body’s own immune system could be used to fight cancer.

His long, often lonely effort is chronicled in a 2019 documentary, “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” that will be screened in Duluth on March 4, courtesy of Essentia Health. It’s narrated by Woody Harrelson (“North Country”).

The son of a doctor, Allison grew up in sultry Alice, Texas, (population 18,949) with a scientific bent. While still a junior in high school, he took a summer biology course at the University of Texas. “And (I) just really loved it,” he said. “And then I was torn. Do I want to be a doctor or do I want to be a scientist?"

He chose science, but with a focus on medicine, and specifically on cancer. His life has been touched more than most by the disease. His mother died of lymphoma when he was 12. His brother died of prostate cancer in 2005, and he was diagnosed with the same form of cancer a short time later. He benefited from early intervention.

By then, Allison already had achieved some fame for his advances in the study of immunotherapy. The idea, although it seemed to make sense, hadn’t been successful in the past. Interferon made the cover of Time magazine in 1980 but proved to be a bust.

Allison, who comes across over the phone as soft spoken and matter-of-fact but not self-effacing, said the problem was that previous researchers had tried to activate the immune system without understanding how it works.

Instead, he sought to understand how T cells, the soldiers of the immune system, behave.

“I wanted to know what turns them on, what turns them off, what speeds them up, how they’re regulated, how they’re controlled,” Allison said. “And once you know those, then you know the levers, the buttons that you can push on and make them do what you want.”

Allison found a protein on the T cell called CTLA-4 that acts as a checkpoint to keep the cells from an overly aggressive response. His breakthrough became a class of drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors, which cancel out CTLA-4’s “brakes.”

‘A new trick’

He’s sometimes portrayed as having had to fight Big Pharma, but Allison downplayed that notion, at least in part.

“There had been a lot of failures,” Allison said. “So when you come along, after a decade of failures, and say, ‘Well, I’ve got a new trick here,’ they go, ‘Yeah, right.’”

But a small research company called Medarex and then, after initial reluctance, big company Bristol Myers Squibb were willing to take risks, Allison said.

The latter’s investors and board were squeamish, he explained. It takes time to raise an army of T cells, and therefore in the early going, tumors were growing rather than going away. But patients treated with the drugs developed through Allison’s research were surviving.

“BMS said no, let’s listen to the science,” Allison related. “By then, they knew that there are these patients that might not have responded early, but they were alive three, four or five years after being treated, which was unheard of.”

One of his early patients testifies to that in “Breakthrough.”

“How in the world are you supposed to adequately thank somebody that without them, you wouldn’t be here?” she asks.

Daniel Nikcevich
Daniel Nikcevich

Dr. Daniel Nikcevich, an oncologist who is president of the Duluth Clinic, was at Duke University in the 1990s when he treated a patient who had melanoma with one of the earlier drugs developed out of Allison’s research. “It worked out spectacularly well,” Nikcevich said.

After Nikcevich moved to Duluth in 2002, that patient looked him up. Cancer-free for decades now, she’ll share her story ahead of the documentary screening on March 4.

In addition to melanoma, immunotherapy so far has been most effective against lung, bladder, kidney and breast cancer, and in a different way against lymphoma, Nikcevich said. “It doesn’t work in all tumors. And I think there’s still more to be understood about what happens.”

An example is prostate cancer, with no immunotherapy treatment yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“We figured out an approach to that,” Allison said. “And I’m optimistic it’s going to work out.”

Challenges like that are what keep Allison in the lab he shares with his wife, Dr. Padmanee “Pam” Sharma.

The music

But that doesn’t mean Allison is an all-work, no-play type. A burly man with longish gray hair and glasses, Allison taught himself to play the harmonica when he was growing up in Alice and became proficient in the instrument.

According to Charles Graeber’s book “The Breakthrough,” Allison was doing post doctoral work in the 1970s in San Diego and also playing in a country western band of Texas expatriates when they ran into Willie Nelson at a party in Del Mar. Allison hauled Nelson and some of his band in his microbus to the Stingaree nightclub in San Diego, where it was open mic night. Nelson took the mic for four hours.

“I never had to pay for another one in that bar again,” Allison told Graeber.

He’s now part of a blues band called the Checkpoints, consisting of scientists and oncologists from across the country who get together during medical conferences. They play during an annual meeting in Chicago, originally at the House of Blues but more recently at Buddy Guy’s Legends. The legendary blues guitarist himself has set in with them a couple of times, Allison said during the News Tribune interview.

“To sound like a band instead of just a bunch of guys messing around is really fun when it’s all working right,” he said.

The documentary offers some hot harmonica-playing, but everything comes back to the research, and the lives that are being lengthened and improved.

Allison said he doesn’t think immunotherapy will replace other forms of cancer treatment.

“But they’re going to be used very differently,” he said. “If they’re used the way they are used now, your radiation or chemotherapy, they can be immunosuppressive. But if you change them so they’re not immunosuppressive, you could probably get by with much, much, much, much less dosing and duration of treatment.

“In any event, it’s going to be good news. It’s going to change everything.”

If you go

What: “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” screening

When: 6-8:30 p.m. March 4

Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.

Schedule: 6-6:30, hors d’oeuvres and refreshments; 6:30-7, patient story; 7-8:30, documentary viewing

Admission: Free

Register: at Breakthrough-Screening.EventBrite.com

Why 'Breakthrough' will be shown in Duluth

Daniel and Kelly Nikcevich were so eager for people in the Duluth area to see “Breakthrough” that they paid for it out of their own pockets.

“This was all my wife’s idea,” Daniel said in an interview last week.

Both Daniel and Kelly have doctorates in immunology, but Kelly in particular followed Jim Allison’s work when she was in grad school and again during her postdoctoral studies.

“So when this movie came out, she thought this is so impactful and so important, that she thought: I wonder if there’s a way we can show this movie to the community as opposed to everyone watching on their own,” said Daniel, who is an Essentia Health oncologist as well as the president of Duluth Clinic.

The movie, which was screened at a number of film festivals, went straight to the small screen and is available through a number of online sources.

But Kelly contacted the production company and found out there was a way to show it on a large screen. It required a “sponsorship fee” of $1,000. The Nikceviches donated that amount to the Essentia Health Foundation, which used the money to pay to bring the movie to Duluth.

“And we thought, wow, this would be fun to do this and make it into a social event,” Daniel said. “And Essentia was kind enough to rent the NorShor and probably have a few snacks and beverages. And that's how it all came about.”