Extraordinary Measures

The ladyfriend and I went to go see the movie Extraordinary Measures this weekend. Considering she’s a film major, and chemistry’s my bag, it was an obvious match up on our to-do lists, and allowed us both to thoroughly geek out over the finer details regarding our craft. Furthermore, considering many of the reviews I’ve seen of the movie ragged on it for being too technical, I’d like to take the time to review the movie as a scientist, for other scientists.

To get everyone up to speed, and without ruining anything, the (based on a true story) movie focuses on John and Aileen Crowley’s (Brendan Frasier and Keri Russel) search for a cure for Pompe Disease, which afflicts two of their young children. They team up with researcher John Stonehill (Harrison Ford), start a biotech company, and against all odds, hop on the fast-track to saving some little kids. Considering the movie is based on a true story, I wouldn’t say the plot is a big secret or anything. However, if you’re going to be all scientific about it and see it without preconceived notions, then you might want to stop here. If you’re curious and don’t mind a few minor factual spoilers, read on!

Ford’s acting as Dr. Stonehill, a somewhat grumpy, unorthodox, and loose cannon biochemist, might be a bit over the top for most, however, considering some of the horror stories I’ve heard about the antics of professors/researchers, I could certainly believe it. I’d bet that if you see it, Stonehill will remind you of at least one PI you know.

The dialogue includes ton of buzzwords: the drug/treatment that Stonehill is working on is enzyme based, and utilizes some sort of phosphate group/tagging (if I recall) to allow easier entry into cells where it can do its thang (break down glycogen). There’s at least one discussion regarding FDA allowed procedures for enzyme procurement, and I was delighted to hear the phrase “orphan drug” dropped a couple times. Although enzyme-based treatment of genetic disorders is only a hobby of mine, I was pleased that most of the science was incredibly believable. Well, OK, there was one point in the movie where the idea of taking the drug from the academic-based research to clinical trials within a year was discussed. My initial response was a very verbal “HA!” in the theater, however given the “basis on a true story,” I gave that the benefit of the doubt.**

The movie also delves into the business side of the pharmaceutical industry: startups seeking venture capital for development of orphan drugs, profitability, acquisition by larger companies, and the corporate hierarchy. Although other reviews I’ve seen that do discuss this instantly take the discussion to some stance on the healthcare debate, I think that the coverage of issues was realistic enough and decidedly fair. More importantly, this is the only movie I’ve ever seen that shows the interface between the big-business and scientific sides of the pharmaceutical industry at all. (Although from a cinematic standpoint, the theme could have been better explored/developed.)

Other reviews are correct in saying that the movie has a real “Lifetime” vibe to it, but otherwise, the movie is decent enough that I didn’t mind. Furthermore “Lifetimey-ness” peaks at the beginning and does subside. It’s easily the only best movie about biochemistry thus far into 2010, and if you’re at all interested for that reason you might as well go check it out. Ultimately, I really hope someone like Derek Lowe sees it/writes a little about it, because I’m sure he’ll have plenty of insight, and a much more accurate and fact based analysis.

** Within the timescale of the movie, the clinical trials do take longer to achieve, but even the notion of getting to that point within a year made me scoff. But: According to wikipedia, the real life Crowley became CEO of Novazyme (started in 1998) in March 2000, acquired by Genzyme in 2001. By January 2003, Crowley’s kids received the enzyme therapy. So, considering Stonehill’s fictional 20 years of research, and brilliant/solid theory, I suppose the reality of cranking full steam to get results within a few years isn’t that far fetched… right?


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