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Decoding Annie Parker-A movie about the discovery of the BRCA1 gene

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I currently teach two online versions of a genomics course as a faculty lecturer at UIUC (one for undergraduates and one for certified teachers working on their Masters of Science Teaching Biology), and I love it when a topic I am teaching hits the news in a big way while the courses are in session.

There has been quite a bit of buzz lately about the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene, from Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy when she learned she had the BRCA1 mutation, which jumps her chances of getting breast cancer from 12 percent to 50-80 percent, to this week’s US Supreme Court ruling that naturally occurring genes are not patentable. Myriad Genetics, a company that screens for the gene (and where Jolie had hers screened), claimed a patent on that gene, and with that, no other company could create a competing screening test which could influence market factors and lower the price. The cost for the screening, at over $3,000, is well out of reach for many women who are concerned about having a heritable component to their breast cancer risk. The invalidation of the patent opens the market for competition and more affordable tests.

I came across an interview with Marie-Claire King, the woman who discovered the first gene, BRCA1 (breast cancer type 1 susceptibility protein) in the lab in the 1990s, wherein she expressed her relief that the Supreme Court ruled the gene could not be patented.

In that same interview, I discovered that a movie has been made about her discovery! It stars Helen Hunt playing King and follows how she and her lab worked to make the discovery of this heritable component, interwoven with the story of a woman, Annie Parker, who had seen her mother, sister, and other female members of the family struggle with cancer, then fall victim herself. Take a look at the trailer.

The story’s synopsis from their website reads:

Based on a true story, we meet the 11-year-old Annie Parker, living the perfect young life, loved by her mother, father and older sister. But something horrible is stalking this family.

On a fall afternoon in 1976, young Annie hears a noise from upstairs and an agonizing downward spiral begins.

Meanwhile, far away, a brilliant research scientist named Mary-Claire King, against the advice of virtually everyone who knew her, is embarking on a journey that would end in a discovery of such significance that it would be considered one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century and touch millions of lives—including that of Annie Parker.

By the age of 19, Annie Parker had lost both her mother and her father and was already pregnant and married to Paul. While immature and barely a man himself, Paul was the source of her joy just as her older sister was her spirit guide. Her sister soon falls victim to the same evil that killed their mother; she too died, leaving Annie virtually alone.

However, Annie Parker’s challenges had hardly begun.

She was then diagnosed with the same disease that killed her mother and sister- breast cancer – and her world begins to spin out of control affecting not only her body, but also her relationship with her husband, her child and her friends.

She loses everything a person can lose, but remarkably Annie continues her fight. As each tragedy befalls her, something remarkable happens. She grows stronger and, well… funnier. She becomes a life force unto herself, determined to survive it all believing, simply, that she can will her self to live.

As Anne battles cancer, the relentless unwavering Mary-Claire King is battling all established medical views about the origins of cancer. She believes that some cancers have a genetic link a notion rejected by her by her peers.
Against all odds, she and her band of researchers make a remarkable discovery that is hailed as of unimaginable importance.
As these two women’s story wind inexorably towards one another, more discoveries are made that go beyond mere science.

I am so pleased to see that a movie has been made about a scientific finding that is in the public eye and close to the heart of several charities. I look forward to watching it for myself and evaluating the portrayal of the science and the scientist. I’ll keep you posted once I have done that.

The movie has been screened at several charity festivals and is due for wider release later in 2013. Follow DecodingAnnie on twitter or Like Decoding Annie on FB to keep up with future screenings and release dates.

Have you seen the movie at one of their premieres? What did you think?

Joanne Manaster About the Author: Joanne Manaster is a university level cell and molecular biology lecturer with an insatiable passion for science outreach to all ages. Enjoy her quirky videos at www.joannelovesscience.com, on twitter @sciencegoddess and on her Facebook page at JoanneLovesScience Follow on Twitter @sciencegoddess.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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