Houston's Nobel Prize winner, Jim Allison, is the star of Breakthrough, which premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App. Photo via SXSW.com

Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, our current coronavirus heroes are donning face masks as they save lives. One local health care hero has a different disease as his enemy, and you'll soon be able to stream his story.

Dr. James "Jim" Allison won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in battling cancer by treating the immune system — rather than the tumor. Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has quietly and often, singularly, waged war with cancer utilizing this unique approach.

The soft-spoken trailblazer is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, which will air on PBS and its streaming channels on Monday, April 27 at 9 pm (check local listings for channel information). Lauded as "the most cheering film of the year" by the Washington Post, the film follows Allison's personal journey to defeat cancer, inspired and driven by the disease killed his mother.

Breakthrough is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, adding a distinct hint of Texana. (The film was a star at 2019's South by Southwest film festival.) The documentary charts Alice, Texas native as he enrolls at the University of Texas, Austin and ultimately, cultivates an interest in T cells and the immune system — and begins to frequent Austin's legendary music scene. Fascinated by the immune system's power to protect the body from disease, Allison's research soon focuses on how it can be used to treat cancer.

Viewers will find Allison charming, humble, and entertaining: the venerable doctor is also an accomplished blues harmonica player. Director Bill Haney weaves Allison's personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 who soon enrolled in Allison's clinical trials. Belvin has since been entirely cancer-free, according to press materials.

"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," said Haney, in a statement. "Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I'll bet they become yours!"

Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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

Film about Nobel Prize-winning Houston scientist premieres at SXSW

Now showing

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."

Jim Allison's groundbreaking work with T cells helped him net the award. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

Houston scientist wins Nobel Prize for breakthrough cancer treatment

Research Recognition

A University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center scientist has been lauded for his cancer research. Jim Allison, Ph.D., was announced as the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 1.

Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform, is the first MD Anderson scientist to receive the world's most coveted award for discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine. Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor, according to a release.

"I'm honored and humbled to receive this prestigious recognition," Allison says in a statement. "A driving motivation for scientists is simply to push the frontiers of knowledge. I didn't set out to study cancer, but to understand the biology of T cells, these incredible cells to travel our bodies and work to protect us."

Allison shares the award with Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph.D., of Kyoto University in Japan. When announcing the honor, the Nobel Assembly of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm noted in a statement that "stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year's Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy."

The prize recognizes Allison's basic science discoveries on the biology of T cells, the adaptive immune system's soldiers, and his invention of immune checkpoint blockade to treat cancer. According to MD Anderson, Allison's crucial insight was to block a protein on T cells that acts as a brake on their activation, freeing the T cells to attack cancer. He developed an antibody to block the checkpoint protein CTLA-4 and demonstrated the success of the approach in experimental models.

Allison's work led to the development of the first immune checkpoint inhibitor drug which would become 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 for 10 years and beyond, unprecedented results, according to the cancer center.

"Jim Allison's accomplishments on behalf of patients cannot be overstated," says MD Anderson president Peter WT Pisters, M.D., in a statement. "His research has led to life-saving treatments for people who otherwise would have little hope. The significance of immunotherapy as a form of cancer treatment will be felt for generations to come."

"I never dreamed my research would take the direction it has," Allison adds. "It's a great, emotional privilege to meet cancer patients who've been successfully treated with immune checkpoint blockade. They are living proof of the power of basic science, of following our urge to learn and to understand how things work."

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.