How did biotech become a Hollywood supervillain?

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amily movie night can be fraught in biotech households.

Earlier this month, John Crowley, CEO of Amicus Therapeutics, cued up “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” as a refresher before the debut of its blockbuster sequel. Soon his living room played host to a man with roughly his job, working at a firm not unlike his, but whose greed and moral depravity made him the movie’s villain.

“Here we go, dad,” Crowley recalled the teenage John Jr. saying. “Another evil biotech company ruining the world.”

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“Apes” is the latest in a long line of movies to find a ready-made baddie in biopharma’s push-the-envelope labs and bounteous balance sheets. It’s a cinematic tradition that’s often frustrating to the industry’s thousands of employees, who view themselves not as faceless profiteers, but as bravehearted scientists questing to outflank human suffering.

It also makes the industry’s multimillion-dollar campaign to polish its public reputation all that much more difficult.


After all, you can blame ill-advised biotech scientists for the global pestilences in “Mission: Impossible 2” and “I Am Legend,” plus the murderous uber-sharks that memorably bisected Samuel L. Jackson in “Deep Blue Sea.” And it was the bean counters of Big Pharma who sent the one-armed man after Richard Kimble in 1993’s “The Fugitive,” who bumped off a do-gooder in the 2005 adaptation of John le Carré’s “The Constant Gardener,” and who engineered a crass insider trading scheme in Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects.”

“Big Pharma is a perfect movie villain because it’s combining the mad scientist of science fiction with the big banks, the big-money villains of dramas and thrillers,” said Miranda Banks, an associate professor of cinema studies at Emerson College.

And the drug industry, witting or not, isn’t helping its cause with all those TV drug ads.

“Think about what the American public sees,” said Jeanine Basinger, a movie historian and professor of film studies at Wesleyan University. “Let’s say you’re watching TV and on comes an ad for Vicatacapoo. ‘It’ll make you well! It’s wonderful! And let me just mention the side effects: You will turn into a kangaroo, your ears will fall off, and you won’t be able to have sex.’”

Each 30-second spot serves as a reminder of an age-old theme: Miracle cures are rarely what they seem. “It goes back to the very beginning,” Basinger said. “It’s Adam and Eve — ‘you ate the apple,’ which is a form of ‘you took the pill.’”

And thus a replicable cinematic formula: Combine a noble scientific endeavor gone awry with a virulent strain of capitalism and you get — spoiler from 1968 — the downfall of human society.

Sam Waksal

Actual scientists are not always amused.

“I think it’s a huge chasm,” said John Maraganore, CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and chairman of BIO, the biotech sector’s largest trade group. “We’re an industry where our scientists come to work every day not worried about making money but about new inventions, new discoveries, and cures for patients.”

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an influential lobbying group, is fighting to bend public perception toward respect and even admiration. In PhRMA’s TV ads, molecules dance and cancer cells explode as stern-faced scientists peer into microscopes on the hunt for new drugs, all over rising strings. The tagline, lifted from Dylan Thomas: “Go Boldly.”

“One of our internal mantras was, ‘Why can’t the pharma industry be appreciated the way the tech industry is?’” said advertising executive Belle Frank, whose firm, Young & Rubicam, worked on the PhRMA campaign.

The rebooted “Apes” saga, whose latest installment has grossed more than $100 million, offers an implicit answer to that question.

The trilogy is set in motion by Gen-Sys, a fictional Bay Area biotech company convinced its experimental gene therapy could be the cure for Alzheimer’s disease. In one scene, a studious, well-meaning scientist played by James Franco implores the Gen-Sys board to approve first-in-human trials of the therapy, ALZ-112, touting its benefits as “virtually limitless.”

He’s then interrupted by an avaricious superior, played by David Oyelowo, who notes that the potential profits are “limitless,” too, nodding to a glowing screen and a comically simplistic line graph of ALZ-112’s future sales. That’s when a rampaging ape named Bright Eyes, driven mad by Gen-Sys’s gene therapy, shatters that very screen, thuds onto the boardroom table, and dies in a storm of security-guard gunfire.

Despite the rolling eyes of his son, Crowley himself doesn’t see much of a crisis. Instead, he points to two time-honored film modalities at work: the Pandora’s box model, focused on what science has done to man; and the Prometheus motif, in which we see what man does with science.

Through that lens, Hollywood’s fascination with the drug industry looks less like prejudice than a simple reflection of biotech being today’s manifestation of big science. Were Mary Shelley writing today, Dr. Victor Frankenstein might work at Amgen.

If Crowley’s take seems a bit more sanguine than that of his colleagues, it is perhaps because he is part of a very exclusive club: Hollywood made a movie about him. And he’s not the bad guy.

Investment Calculations

“Extraordinary Measures,” released in 2010, tells the story of Crowley’s quest to find a new treatment for two of his children, Megan and Patrick, who have the rare and life-shortening Pompe disease. Brendan Fraser stars as the Navy-trained Crowley, joined by Harrison Ford as a crotchety composite character with the right scientific know-how but none of the corporate refinement necessary for success in biotech. Together, the entrepreneurial odd couple overcomes problems scientific, emotional, and bureaucratic, all in a tidy hour-forty-five.

Extraordinary Measures
Harrison Ford (left) and Brendan Fraser in “Extraordinary Measures.” CBS Films

As a cinematic experience, “Extraordinary Measures” is more indebted to Hallmark than Hal Ashby; the New York Times deemed it “a movie about a medical breakthrough [that] is not especially eager to break new ground of its own.”

But in thematic terms, it’s unique in biotech’s film canon. The villain is neither a mad scientist nor a money-hungry one-percenter but Pompe disease itself. Our heroes’ armaments are assays, enzymes, and venture capital.

To Crowley, there’s a place for all the “Apes” and “Fugitives” of the world, movies that “force us to think about the moral questions and ethical boundaries we need to work within in our industry.” But “Extraordinary Measures,” he said, could point to a third path for filmmakers with eyes on the drug industry.

“Take it back to Pandora’s box,” Crowley said. “When all the little secrets were let out, by the time they closed the box, there was only one thing left. That was hope. Maybe, somehow, Hollywood needs to tell that story, too.”

Even if that more positive spin doesn’t often make it into America’s multiplexes, Maraganore sees at least some benefit to biopharma being portrayed as an all-powerful (if regularly sinister) force. After all, Gen-Sys’s drug dramatically boosted brain power, just as its inventors intended. It also ushered in the end of human hegemony, but side effects are inevitable.

“I mean, super-smart apes — the only way to do that is with the beauty and marvels of biotechnology,” Maraganore said. “You couldn’t do that as a software company.”

Damian Garde

National Biotech Reporter

Damian covers biotech and writes The Readout newsletter.

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