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A Scientist Who Bends Musical Notes

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As a pioneer in cancer immunotherapy, Jim Allison has spent decades tackling major scientific challenges. So it’s interesting that Allison would consider one of the top five moments in his life jamming onstage with country star Willie Nelson. Yes, in addition to being a top-flight scientist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Allison plays a mean harmonica.

Allison taught himself how to bend notes on the harmonica as a teenager growing up in a small Texas town. By his 20s, Allison was good enough to jam a couple of nights a week with the now legendary Clay Blaker & the Texas Honky Tonk Band. When Blaker asked if he wanted to hit the road with the band, Allison declined. He had his postdoctoral training to finish in molecular immunology.

Armed with a powerful set of tools and technologies, Allison soon began pioneering one particular form of cancer immunotherapy, then a controversial topic in oncology that some believed would never work. He discovered that a particular protein on the surface of T-cells acts a braking system, preventing full activation of the immune system when a cancer is emerging. By delivering an antibody that blocks that protein, called a “checkpoint inhibitor,” Allison showed the brakes could be released. Dramatic responses to previously untreatable cancers began to appear. In 2015, Allison received the Lasker Award—America’s “Nobel Prize”—for this work.

After winning the Lasker, Allison received some well-deserved public notoriety, including an article that mentioned his harmonica playing and being a huge fan of Willie Nelson. As fate would have it, the article was read by Mickey Raphael, the harmonica player in Nelson’s traveling band, The Family. Raphael contacted Allison and offered him an open invitation to join his musical hero onstage for a number or two anytime the band played the Redneck Country Club, outside Houston.

Allison had actually already played informally with Nelson one night back in his 20s while working on his postdoc. He never imagined it could happen again—but here was the chance. So after about 40 years of listening to classic Nelson tunes, from “On the Road Again” to “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Allison had a chance to reach deep into his bucket list. On March 11, 2016, Nelson and the band rolled into the Redneck Country Club, and Allison stepped onstage for one of the top five thrills of his life.

Since then, Allison has played with Nelson at the Austin City Limits Festival, Austin, TX, where Nelson was the closing act for an audience of about 70,000 people. When it came time for his solo, Allison grins and says he blew his worst first note ever, but quickly recovered and played a great set. In July 2018, he joined the band yet again at the Outlaw Music Festival, The Woodlands, TX.

Allison, of course, spends most of his time leading his NIH-supported lab. About 22 percent of patients with metastatic melanoma are alive a decade after receiving the immunotherapy drug that Allison pioneered, ipilimumab (known commercially as Yervoy®). Allison wants to boost that number for all cancers. In the meantime, Allison continues to receive accolades for the amazing things that he’s already accomplished. He was just named a co-recipient of the 2018 Albany Medical Center Prize, presented annually to people who have altered the course of medical research.

But Allison loves his music, and he makes a point of carving out time to play the harmonica. In fact, he plays in two bands. One is the Checkmates, comprised of Houston-based scientists and doctors. They perform at events around MD Anderson and participate in local fundraisers. Last year, the band helped to raise about $20,000 for the Halo House Foundation, which helps cancer patients battling leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma with temporary, low-cost housing during treatment at the Texas Medical Center, Houston.

The CheckPoints, his other band, goes back about a decade. Because its members are cancer researchers and doctors who live all over the country, they don’t play together often. But they keep in touch, sharing their latest musical recordings and lyrics. Every year, they play at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting at a fundraising event hosted by The Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer. Last summer, they sold out Chicago’s House of Blues. So, this year, they moved to a larger venue called Buddy Guy’s Legends. George “Buddy” Guy, an influential blues guitarist and singer himself, showed up and joined them on stage.

Allison’s bands primarily play covers, often classic rock ’n’ roll and blues tracks. They’re starting to think more about writing and performing some originals. When Allison spends time with his fellow band members, their shared love of science is a regular topic. But the conversation often turns to a discussion of music and how much fun it is to improvise—just as Jim Allison did on his harmonica when he was a teen growing up in Texas.


Allison Lab (MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX)

Unleashing the Immune System to Combat Cancer (Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, New York)

Halo House Foundation (Houston, TX)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute

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