publication date: Oct. 5, 2018
When your harmonica player wins the Nobel Prize
By Rachel Humphrey
Senior vice president and chief medical officer, CytomX Therapeutics
Lead singer of THE CHECKPOINTS
THE CHECKPOINTS were born in 2007 on an escalator in Chicago. Here’s the story…
Back then, in an oncology era that we’ll fondly call “The Dark Ages,” no one, except a small gaggle of Don Quixotes, believed that the immune system could cure cancer. Immunotherapy stalwarts (like my friends and I) were such outcasts that our presentations at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting were scheduled for the last day of the conference (when just about everyone had already gone home) and assigned to a lecture hall that was too remote for anything but sensible shoes.
In fact, the trip was so laborious that we never bothered to walk it more than once per day. Instead, we just planted ourselves there early in the morning and didn’t leave until lunchtime.
Access to the ASCO immuno-oncology diaspora required travel on an enormous lumbering escalator, with enough transit time between landings to eat a full tuna sandwich. It was on this very escalator, at the end of a satisfying, if ill-attended, series of lectures, that Tom Gajewski and Patrick Hwu wistfully wondered about starting a blues band.
They still needed a singer and a bass player, and couldn’t find anyone to sign up. “I can sing,” I laughed, “and how hard can it be to learn how to play the bass?”
By the time we got to the bottom of the escalator (really, I’m not kidding) we had a plan. Patrick Hwu would play keys, Tom would play lead guitar, and I would be the singer.
Jim Allison was recruited a few hours later. He would play blues harmonica, and although none of us lived in the same US state, we didn’t worry. We knew it would work. Oh, and by the way, since we didn’t have a bass player, I went right out, bought a bass, and started lessons. Anything was possible in those days!
But, aside from my delusional ambition to be a bass player, we were all serious musicians.
Tom and Patrick had already played in multiple bands with professional-quality skill (read: “wow! Who knew he could do that?!”), Jim had played harmonica with Willie Nelson (read: “say what?!”), and I had produced, directed and had lead roles in musicals for over a decade with a popular community theater company in Connecticut. All of us played multiple instruments, some better than others, and the formation of a band wasn’t too much of a stretch.
That first year, we gathered for rehearsals a half-dozen times at various IO conferences around the United States. With the best of intentions we attended some of the lectures, but mostly we were there to play music in poorly lit hotel basements until the wee hours of the morning. It was loads of fun.
The only snag, at least for me, was that it took a while before our setlist included songs for girls. You see, the guys preferred to play the tunes they’d practiced in their basements during puberty. I mean, really, how many times did I have to sing “Pretty Woman” before I couldn’t take it anymore? Even now, adjusting pronouns in the lyrics doesn’t always work (“Brown Eyed Boy”? Meh).
Eventually, we filled the setlist with great blues and covers that fit my voice neatly. I love the Cranberries and Susan Tedeschi! Aretha is now on the list, and Sweet Home Chicago, our oldest favorite, is gender neutral (hurray!) and perfect in every way.
Allison, Nobel laureate, on the harmonica
By the fall of 2007, as we sat in an empty bar at 3 a.m., we declared ourselves “not terrible” and ready to pick a name for the band. “THE CHECKPOINTS” was Jim’s idea. It made sense since we were all working on the first checkpoint inhibitor, ipilimumab: Jim was the Nobel-worthy scientist who had made the seminal observation at the bench that led to ipilimumab, Tom and Patrick were the brilliant clinician-scientists who treated patients with the drug and were, themselves, making great strides in IO, and I was the senior supervisor of all of the ipilimumab global development program at Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Actually, now that I think about it, we’d already been THE CHECKPOINTS long before we’d ever thought to play music together.
Over the subsequent years, both THE CHECKPOINTS and IO matured in parallel. Our setlist has now grown from the original six songs, which we played over and over (and over) at our first SITC gig, to six hours of tunes! As for IO, CTLA-4 and PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors have transformed cancer therapy and IO lectures routinely fill the Plenary halls at ASCO. Not shabby.
Oh, and Jim, our high priest of the Church of the Holy T cell and the magician on the blues harps, has just won a Nobel Prize. (read: “how great is THAT?”).
If you’re wondering, we routinely practice on multiple late nights in Chicago during ASCO-week before we play on that Sunday, and put in more late nights later in the year at the Society of Immunotherapy for the Treatment of Cancer annual meeting before we play the president’s dinner that Saturday.
Large mushroom pizzas and red wine is all it takes to keep us going. We compete to see who can bring the best bottles.
The band has now grown to 10 musicians from the first humble four. Dirk Spitzer, our fabulous drummer, has been a CHECKPOINT since just about the beginning, and we’ve now got a gifted (real) bass player named Brad Reinfeld. (I’m a terrible bass player, let’s just leave it at that.) John Timmerman is our talented second guitar player, and our new brass section includes some awesome folks: Ferran Prat on sax, Jason Luke on trumpet, and Russell Pachynski on trombone.
THE CHECKPOINTS, performing live at SITC’s fundraiser at the House of Blues in Chicago, 2017.
We also have two permanent guest artists: Lisa Butterfield sings back-up sometimes and graces us with her own terrific cameos. Willem Overwijk goofs it up and brings down the house at SITC with an original IO-focused rewrite of a different famous song every year. Pam Sharma, Jim’s wife, and world-renowned IO scientist herself, is the original groupie, the vanguard of all CHICKPOINTS and CHUCKPOINTS that followed.
All of us work in IO. It’s the ticket in. After all, we wouldn’t be THE CHECKPOINTS without a solid download of our recent data in the Green Room before a gig. You’d be amazed what you can learn over pickled artichoke hearts and a Stella.
We’ve also begun to write original material. Our first fresh song, an homage to the power of immunotherapy, and written by John Timmerman and Patrick Hwu, is called “You Don’t Belong Here.”
When we introduced the song at SITC last year, everyone, all hundreds in the packed audience, bounced up and down and called out, with arms raised, “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!!” to cancer! We bounced too. The energy was infectious. Excerpts from the lyrics are below. Recordings of this and other songs are in the works, so stay tuned.
These days, The CHECKPOINTS band is the SITC “House Band.” We play cool places every year like the House of Blues and Buddy Guys in Chicago. Once, we even had an “all-expenses-paid” trip to Frankfurt, Germany, where we slept on flea-infested mattresses, stayed in bed until 11 am, went to bars with groupies until 3 a.m., and lived like rock stars.
Then we came home (with real rashes) and became scientists again.
In any event, we all send Jim Allison warm congratulations for his well-deserved recognition by the Nobel committee. His life’s work has brought new life and hope to patients with cancer. We couldn’t be prouder or feel more honored that he is our friend. (And he most certainly ain’t a bad harmonica player either!)
You Don’t Belong Here
(A song written from the perspective of a circulating T-cell)
I was cruising around, just surveying the town,
circulating and free, with no place to be
I don’t mind, bein’ young and naïve,
I ain’t got no engagements, and no memory
But while making my rounds, find myself face-to-face
With a big ugly mutant, taking over the place
He’s proliferating, necrosis and blight
I know he’s a cancer, and I’M IN FOR A FIGHT!…..
You’re mutated, but I’m educated
You’re done proliferating, ‘cause I’m infiltrating
I got no inhibitions, I got no fear
You’re gonna be lysed ‘cause…
YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!!
Published with permission from John Timmerman and Patrick Hwu.
Check out this YouTube video from SITC, 2017.
You can see and learn more about the band, including YouTube videos and photographs here.
All proceeds from the sale of T-shirts and other fun stuff go to SITC.