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Film about Nobel Prize-winning Houston scientist premieres at SXSW

Jim Allison, immunotherapy researcher at MD Anderson and Nobel Prize recipient, is the subject of a new film that premiered at SXSW. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

For most of his career, James Allison has been a cancer research wildcatter fighting an oftentimes lonely battle for the advancement of immunotherapy. The medical community has historically been skeptical of the science, but nonetheless Allison dedicated his life to developing a better treatment to the disease that has claimed so many lives — including his mother's.

Last year, Allison, the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine, and Breakthrough, a film about Allison's progression from early researcher to Nobel Prize recipient, premiered on March 9 at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival.

But despite the Nobel Prize and the new film both validating the science to the public, Allison says there's a lot more work to be done in immunotherapy. Allison, his colleague, Padmanee Sharma, and the filmmaker for Breakthrough, Bill Haney, hosted a discussion at SXSW about the future of immunotherapy.

"It's a time of considerable optimism — and we're just at the beginning," says Allison.

The film focuses on the man behind the science — a 70-year-old, harmonica-playing researcher from small-town Alice, Texas. It's both an ode to Allison's career and a thought-provoking take on all the work left to be done in the industry.

Immunotherapy is the process of targeting one's immune system's T-cells, infection-fighting white blood cells, to attack cancer cells. Sharma, a fellow MD Anderson oncology expert and clinician, says their work has received clinical approvals for treating Melanoma, kidney cancer, lung cancer, and bladder cancer. The scientists are now focused on expanding that treatment to other cancer types and building upon the established platform they've created, while also making sure nothing comes in the way of the facts of the science.

"It really requires that we dedicate ourselves to the basic science, understanding it and educating people about it, so we don't allow the facts and science get muddied by things that are political or nonfactual," Sharma says.

In a lot of ways, this is what Breakthrough has been able to do — communicate the facts on a platform where anyone can understand the science.

"We have a revolution on our hands, and thankfully we have people like Bill who can really tell the story well, because maybe as a scientist and a clinician, we're not always equally talented on telling the story to laypeople," Sharma says.

Moving forward, Allison says he's focused on finding out why the treatment fails in some instances, and he's determined to progress immunotherapy's success rate from the 20 to 40 percent rate he says he sees it at now to 100 percent.

"We've got all the basic tools, and we know what the main issues are," Allison says. "There's still a lot to do, but we need to be smart and do fact-based and mechanism-based combinations."

Dr. Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson, ranks high on the list of top CEOs. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson

Houston-based MD Anderson regularly garners praise for its breakthrough cancer treatments. Now, its leader is garnering attention as one of the country's top CEOs.

Dr. Peter Pisters, who's been president of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston since 2017, is among the honorees in Glassdoor's annual Employees' Choice Awards, recognizing the top 100 CEOs of 2019. Pisters ranks 47th on the list, with an impressive 94 percent approval rating from his employees. He appears in the category for large employers.

In a letter sent to faculty and staff after he was named to the position, Pisters wrote that he looked forward to collaborating with his new MD Anderson colleagues on the hospital's "profound purpose" of wiping out cancer.

"My promise to you is we will do so with a strong moral compass and principles of values-based servant leadership," Pisters wrote. "The honor of serving as your president is one that I both respect and am humbled by, and I will spare no effort in working with you to build upon and extend MD Anderson's unparalleled history of success."

Sitting atop the Glassdoor list of CEOs at large employers is Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMWare. Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of San Antonio-based H-E-B, is in second place, followed by In-N-Out Burger's Lynsi Snyder, T-Mobile's John Legere, and Adobe's Shantanu Narayen.

"Under [Butt's] leadership, the desire to constantly innovate has led to new store concepts, the creation of one of the most successful private label programs in the country, and the commitment to build out state-of-the-art digital products and services to complement H-E-B's world-class stores," the company says in a release about the Glassdoor recognition.

The remaining Texans on the Glassdoor list are all from the Dallas area: Gary Kelly, chairman and CEO of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines; Peter Strebel, president of Dallas-based Omni Hotels & Resorts; and Steve Barick, chief operating officer of Irving-based Highgate Hotels, all in the category for large employers.

Kelly, who has worked at Southwest for more than 30 years, is the highest ranked CEO in Dallas, landing at No. 35 with an approval rating of 95 percent.

At No. 58 is Strebel, who garnered an approval rating of 94 percent. He's a longtime employee of Omni; in 2018, he was promoted to president.

Barick, the longtime chief operating officer of Irving-based Highgate Hotels, claims the 97th spot with an approval rating of 90 percent.

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This article originally appeared on CultureMap.