Visionary doctor works to stop cancer in “JIM ALLISON: BREAKTHROUGH” on INDEPENDENT LENS, Monday, April 11 at 10

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What Does it Take to Deliver Revolutionary New Medicines Against Life-Threatening Disease?

“We are facing a global health challenge that knows no boundaries or race or religion, and we are all relying on gifted and passionate scientists and healthcare workers to contain and ultimately beat this thing. Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I’ll bet they become yours!”
– Director, Bill Haney


Jim Allison stands above microscope.
Jim Allison stands above microscope.

The story of one warmhearted, stubborn man’s visionary quest to find a cure for cancer, Jim Allison: Breakthrough from filmmaker Bill Haney is an homage to an unconventional superhero — a pioneering, harmonica-playing scientist who triumphed over a doubtful medical establishment to save innumerable lives around the world. In 2018, Jim Allison won the Nobel Prize for discovering the immune system’s role in defeating cancer, but his lengthy journey to get there was filled with barriers and criticism.

Praised as not only “the most cheering film of the year” but also as “absorbing, gracefully constructed and [a] deeply moving documentary” by the Washington Post, Jim Allison: Breakthrough airs on Independent Lens Monday, April 11, 2022, 10:00-11:30 PM  on PBS, and the PBS Video App.

With the help of narrator Woody Harrelson, Haney spotlights the perseverance of Allison starting with his days as a young, curious boy growing up in Texas whose life is shattered when he loses his mother to cancer. He grows into a headstrong, shaggy-haired, music-loving college student fascinated by immunotherapy, and he starts on a path to find a cure for the disease that so profoundly impacted his life. His research leads him to the discovery of the T-cell receptor, and its role in fighting cancer.

Jim Allison receives the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Jim Allison receives the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Allison’s seminal discovery put him at odds with the entire medical community at the time, as he endured repeated setbacks, personal and professional, from a system not built to encourage breakthrough innovation. His vision was wildly creative and unconventional for someone in the medical profession in the 1980s. Jim Allison: Breakthrough chronicles a hero’s triumph over incessant skepticism and resistance from the powerful pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment.

“We’re delighted to champion films that celebrate the perseverance of trailblazers and world changers like Jim Allison,” said Independent Lens Executive Producer Lois Vossen. “Jim Allison: Breakthrough reminds us all to keep pushing and fighting if we believe in something, despite adversity. It is a vivid reminder that the path to greatness is seldom easy, but always worthwhile.”

Jim Allison at Firehouse Saloon in Houston, Texas.
Jim Allison at Firehouse Saloon in Houston, Texas.

Featuring interviews with family, Allison’s colleagues and past students, immunology experts, and patients, the film paints a colorful portrait of Allison; not just of a strong-willed and passionate scientist, but a humble man, a talented musician and dedicated Willie Nelson fan who just wanted to do some good in the world. Haney expertly interweaves Allison’s personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma who enrolled in Allison’s trials in 2006. Since then, she has been entirely cancer-free.

Visit the Jim Allison: Breakthrough page on Independent Lens for more information about the film.

About the Filmmaker

Bill Haney (Director/Producer)

Bill is a filmmaker, inventor and entrepreneur. As a writer, director and producer of both narrative and documentary films, he has won The Gabriel Prize, a Silver Hugo, and IDA’s Pare Lorentz Award. Additional awards include a Marine Conservation Award, Genesis Award and awards from Amnesty International and Earthwatch. Bill’s portfolio as a filmmaker includes award-winning documentaries on socially important subjects such as coal mining (The Last Mountain, 2011) and worker exploitation (The Price of Sugar, 2007) and his work as writer/producer on Tim Disney’s civil rights drama, American Violet.