For most amateur musicians, playing a gig with Willie Nelson would be a highlight of their lives. For Jim Allison, it’s just a footnote.
Besides playing a mean blues harmonica, Allison won the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year for his work on using the immune system to battle cancer, a prize he shared with Tasuku Honjo of Japan.
Now the documentary “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” tells the story of his decades researching T cells.
His research began in grad school in the early 1970s, focusing on how the immune system could fight cancer. He describes T cells as “these wondrous cells at the center of the immune system (which) go all over your body to protect you,” according to a press kit.
His work led him to research centers in Texas, California and New York and finally back to Texas where he’s now executive director of the immunotherapy platform at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Along the way, he was also playing the blues harmonica, a hobby that led him to sitting in with Nelson and his band one night in 1975 when Allison was doing post-doctorate work at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. “I didn’t have to buy a beer for a couple of years after that,” Allison recalls.
The Nelson connection extends to a longtime member of his band, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, who helped compose the documentary’s music. “I lost my partner to ovarian cancer in 2014 and I keep up with what’s going on in the world of cancer research. When I first heard about the work Jim was doing, I immediately reached out to him and we became fast friends,” Raphael explained.
The 90-minute film debuted this year at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and has been screened at film festivals and art houses across the country.