A recent article in the journal Science described a significant gene-therapy based advance in the treatment of two boys with adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare and lethal genetic disease. This was wonderful news for those who have affected family members. This devastating affliction was the focal point of the beautifully crafted movie “Lorenzo’s Oil.” The film chronicled the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone’s desperate search for a cure for their afflicted son Lorenzo.
One of my favorite scenes from the film portrays a British scientist, Don Suddaby, who is in the twilight of his career. Six months away from retirement, Don takes on a special challenge at the request of the Odone family: purify a special oil for testing as a possible treatment for the disease. As he drives himself to synthesize the oil, the scientist’s young supervisors fear that he will collapse from overwork. Ultimately, they resist the urge to interfere with his efforts. After a career spent working on face creams and cosmetics, it is apparent to everyone that he is having the time of his life working on this potentially life-saving task. At the end of a long night spent completing the purification drop by drop, Don announces he is going home, asks his supervisors to ship the finished oil to Lorenzo’s parents, and slowly shuffles down the hall into retirement. It is a beautiful portrait of a scientist ending his career on its highest note. Fittingly, Don was recruited to play himself in the film.
Don Suddaby’s character in Lorenzo’s Oil stands in marked contrast to the megalomaniacs that often show up as scientists and doctors in the movies. Recent examples include Gene Hackman’s warped doctor in “Extreme Measures” and Kevin Bacon’s deranged scientist in “Hollow Man.” In these and countless other sci-fi films, it’s usually a single individual who takes the deep dive into the insanity pool. As a scientist working in the biotech industry, I’m always interested in how people in biomedicine are portrayed in the movies.
Since 1992, when “Lorenzo’s Oil” was released, I’ve noticed a more disturbing portrayal of pharma and biotech companies cropping up in films. For the industry, the images are not good. Greed, corruption, mendacity, and murder seem to be the emerging elements in cinema’s portrait of corporate misdeeds in biotech and pharma. My sense is that the blame is going more toward the corporations than the individuals, but I worry that these portrayals really make all scientists look like bad guys. Let’s review some recent renderings of pharma in film: … Next Page »