2020 Video: In-Depth Reporting - Gold

Bill Haney, writer, producer and director of “Jim Allison: Breakthrough,” tells the story of an unconventional scientist and his path to a Nobel Prize. Shattered as a youth by the loss of his mother to cancer, Allison became a headstrong, long-haired, music-loving student fascinated with the immune system and its potential for combatting cancer. He eventually led a research team exploring the mechanisms of T-cells, the immune system’s hunter-killer cells. In the 1990s, his team and another group showed there was a molecule on T-cells that acts like an off switch or a brake pedal when T-cells encounter an infected cell. Allison’s group developed an antibody to disable this off-switch and keep T-cells in attack mode. It helped usher in the use of immunotherapy to treat a variety of cancers. The film shows the obstacles Allison faced, including skepticism by peers and the high cost of long-term research, before he was able to demonstrate that a new kind of treatment could work. “When you have a central character who is a harmonica-playing, cancer-fighting scientist, you probably have a good film going,” said Larry Engel of American University's School of Communication. “Add a Texas drawl and Willie Nelson and you end up with a remarkable science film filled with scientific twists and turns told so well that I didn’t want it to end.” Haney said he was partly inspired to make the film “in response to the polarized nature of American society and the complex challenges we face. I was looking to make a film that united us all and, by example, inspired us to see how we can accomplish the extraordinary if we work wisely together.”