AP NEWS

Nobel winner Allison mobbed by fans at MD Anderson

October 6, 2018

Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison was about to walk down the MD Anderson Cancer Center skybridge at 10:45 a.m. Friday, en route to his first Houston news conference since winning the award for his cancer research. But what occurred Friday morning was not really a news conference. It was not a scientist who won an award being congratulated by his co-workers. It was not a ceremony.

Rather, it was Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. It was Justin Bieber being mobbed after a show. It was the new pope riding with his cavalcade down the Vatican.

MD Anderson’s celebration of Allison winning the Nobel Prize for medicine began with a marching band. The sounds of snares and bass bounced off the glass walls of the skybridge, cutting through the high-pitched screams of scientists turned fans.

Thousands of MD Anderson employees were already on the bridge, waiting. They took selfies. They held signs that said “You’re a rock star” and “Checkpoint: Nobel Prize winners only.” Two women danced on the window ledge and twirled pompoms on sticks. They had all been there for quite some time, awaiting his arrival. But the people who wait in Manhattan for New Year’s Eve or the Macy’s Day Parade don’t complain about standing around. Neither do the Allison fans.

Pat! Pat! Pat! The drum line couldn’t be seen, not yet, but just those sounds made people pull out their iPhones, ready to chronicle the appearance of a newly minted celebrity. It was as if they could hear history around the corner, about to walk in front of their eyes.

The drum line came out. The photographers emerged, ducking and pushing to get ahead of the crowd. “Look!” one fan said, pointing toward the end of the hallway.

It was him. Sporting a grayish-blue jacket and tie with his white hair hung loose behind his neck, Allison walked hand in hand with his wife, researcher Dr. Padmanee Sharma, who wore black heels and a fashionable gold and black purse.

The posse of researchers and staffers trailed behind him in an assembly line. But that neat presentation of band, media, Allison, then posse was soon swallowed by the crowd, who would not abide standing idly next to the window. Several thousand doctors, researchers and students enveloped the septuagenarian.

One woman pushed people aside, saying she was the “head of her entire department” and that her group needed to be up front.

Where was Allison? The ebb and flow of the crowd made that difficult to assess. Those walking in his wake looked happily stunned. Men and women wearing white lab coats and ID badges jumped up and down, holding their homemade posters above their heads.

One could only imagine how many social-media-ready videos were produced during those short, historic 20 minutes. It ended with Allison disappearing, all too quickly, into a heavily guarded room on the other side of the bridge.

“Media only!” the guards yelled. They formed a blockade of puffed shoulders and linked arms. Inside that small room, three television cameras and 10 chairs were stationed for journalists.

Dr. Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson, approached the lectern and gave quick remarks. One could hear the crowd dissipating outside. Allison offered his thanks. One reporter asked him to explain his research. She nodded politely as he spoke about T-cells, melanoma recovery rates and the CD28 molecule.

He said that the Nobel prize wasn’t the end-all of his career, that he “hopes for something else to celebrate down the road” — more lives saved. He mentioned this was the first Nobel awarded to cancer research.

One out of 5 cancer patients, he said, has remained alive for 10 years due to treatment related to his team’s method of bolstering our immune system — a sharpening of our natural anti-cancer defense mechanisms.

But he wanted those numbers to get even higher. When he was an undergrad in the late 1960s, researchers had just discovered the T-cell, the key ingredient to how our body fights certain kinds of cancer. During the ensuing decades of studying the T-cell, immunology continued to grow out of its place as a mere subfield of cancer research. Today, as one of the most successful people in the world of cancer research and a leader in immunology, Allison still saw the long road ahead.

After the press briefing, a girl scampered about the hallways outside. She asked one of the grown-ups if there was a chance she’d see the Nobel winner.

“No, I don’t think you’ll be able to see him, I’m not sure,” someone replied.

The girl returned to what appeared to be her parents. But they didn’t leave. Not yet. They stayed there, looking in what they believed was Allison’s direction, not going to work, still waiting, still hoping for a glimpse of history.

wchen@chron.com

AP RADIO
Update hourly