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Cancer Scientist Jams With Willie Nelson One More Time

Joe Palca (left) with Jim Allison (second from right) and friends, circa 1975. Allison has gone on to make landmark discoveries in science, and is still passionate about outlaw country music.
Joe Palca/NPR
Joe Palca (left) with Jim Allison (second from right) and friends, circa 1975. Allison has gone on to make landmark discoveries in science, and is still passionate about outlaw country music.

In 1975, I was living in San Diego and needed a job. The roommate of a friend of mine was a scientist at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation. He said a colleague of his was looking to hire a lab technician, so I applied and got the job. The scientist I worked for was some guy from a small town in Texas. His name? Jim Allison.

Jim has invented a new kind of cancer therapy that enables patients' own immune systems to fight off their disease. He's won all kinds of awards for his work, and some say he'll win the Nobel Prize before long. But in 1975, he was just my boss.

I spent a year under Jim's direction concentrating a protein called HLA-9 from human serum. The idea was to get enough of it to see what amino acids it was made from. HLA-9 is a part of the immune system that's key to rejecting any foreign substances that enter the body.

But Jim was also my pal. We ate lunch together almost every day. We'd go drinking together after work. We were regulars at a honky-tonk called the Stingaree that had live music. Jim was particularly fond of outlaw country music — artists like Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Gary P. Nunn and especially Willie Nelson.

Jim was a nut about Nelson. One night, he crashed a record party being held in San Diego for Nelson's album Red Headed Stranger. Never shy, Jim went over and talked to Nelson, told him he was a fellow Texan and how much he liked his music.

Nelson asked Jim if there was someplace he and the band could play after the party, so Jim took them up to the Stingaree, where it was open mic night. Nelson and the band played until the bar closed. They even let Jim sit in with his harmonica on a set or two. Jim was on cloud nine for at least a week after that night.

Although Jim liked to party, he was all business at work. He was always ready to talk science. He was also competitive and was eager to publish results ahead of other scientists working on HLA-9.

I left my job with Jim in 1976 to pursue my own doctorate degree. When I later became a science journalist, Jim and I would bump into each other occasionally. He once tried to explain to me about the work he was doing with the immune system and cancer, but I have to confess I didn't grasp its importance.

When Rebecca Davis and I went to interview Jim in his lab at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he now works, he was keen to tell me about his work, but equally keen to tell me about something that had just landed in his lap.

Mickey Raphael, who plays harmonica in Willie Nelson's band, had read about Jim (and his promising cancer therapy) in a Texas paper. The article mentioned Jim's fondness for Nelson, and that he had once played with the band back in the '70s. Raphael was appreciative of Jim's work because he had lost his wife to cancer, and wanted to do something nice for Jim. So in what Raphael described as "a reverse Make a Wish" move, he asked Jim to sit in again with the band when they played a gig in Houston. You can see the results.

If Jim does win the Nobel Prize one of these days, I can tell you that appearing on stage with the king of Sweden to receive the prize is not likely to eclipse the pleasure Jim got from appearing on stage with Willie Nelson.

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Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.