Jim Allison: Breakthrough

The film, “Jim Allison: Breakthrough” can be streamed through online platforms, like PBS or from Amazon Prime Video. Teachers can sign up for a free license at  https://www.breakthroughdoc.com/for-educators

The film is 1 1/2 hours long, which is longer than most class periods, and many teen attention spans, so I split the worksheet into two halves.

The first half of of the documentary follows Jim Allison’s journey from childhood to biologist and examines his work studying how the immune system could be used to treat cancer. The film is quirky and I think gives students a different view of what a scientist is supposed to look like. Jim does not always follow the rules, he spends his days in the lab and plays the harmonica in a band, even playing with Willie Nelson at one point.

The film goes into detail about how T Cells have a protein called CTLA-4 that works as a regulating switch for T cell activity. There are a few graphic animations of the T cells, but the main focus of the film is about the process of science and how it can take years and require focus and dedication from the teams working on the projects.

Source: Cancer.gov

For this reason, I think the film would be a good addition to beginning chapters on scientific processes. Alternatively could be watched during an immunology or cancer (cell division) unit.

The second part of the film, which you don’t necessarily need to watch sequentially, focuses on the development of a drug that could block the CTLA-4 pathway that inhibits T cell function. Ipilimumab is a drug that works from antibodies designed to block the CTLA-4 protein. When this protein is blocked the T-cell is activated and the tumor cell is killed.

This part of the documentary really highlights the process that goes into drug development and trials and how difficult it can be to propose an alternative treatment.

Source: Researchgate.net

Overall, I really did enjoy this film and there are lots of places in the film to pause and have discussions with students about the biology of cancer and immune cells, and even pause to consider ethics in science research.

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