15 March 2010
BioethicistAppeared in BioNews 549
Directed by Tom Vaughan
Extraordinary Measures is the story of the desperation of a father (John Crowley; Brendan Fraser) to find a drug to prolong his sick childrens' lives. The two children, Megan (Meredith Droeger) and Patrick (Diego Velazquez) Crowley, aged eight and six, both have Pompe - an incurable genetic condition with a life expectancy of nine years of age.
The film, reminiscent of Lorenzo's Oil, is based on a true story. As you can imagine the aim of this film is to pull on your heart strings, and there are indeed many touching moments. There are also a number of interesting emotional and moral issues at bay and the film touches the right chords here, but ultimately it fails to stimulate any sort of moral thought or debate and in the main this film suffers badly from 'Hollywooditis'.
As the film starts we meet Megan and Patrick celebrating Megan Crowley's 8th birthday. The children, both confined to wheelchairs with breathing tubes in their necks are inspirational (even if a little sensationalist) - so very cheerful and highly spirited amid such sadness. Soon after Megan's 8th birthday though we are reminded of the very real consequences of this terrible disease when she is rushed to the hospital and almost dies. The imminent fear of losing his daughter springs Crowley - a high flying businessman - into action as he decides to find an academic scientist in Nebraska (Dr Ford Stonehill; Harrison Ford) who is working on a controversial theory that would enable the development of a drug to treat children with Pompe.
Dr Stonehill is an eccentric scientist (out of interest, there was no such eccentric scientist in reality - just a researcher at Duke University). He is incredibly grumpy all of the time, with very little other personality, and consumed by a desperate need to prove his controversial theory (whilst listening to a lot of very loud rock music). Pompe, we learn from Stonehill, is a genetic condition characterised by the inactivity of an enzyme which functions in glycogen metabolism. Without this enzyme glycogen builds up in the muscles of the body with ultimately fatal consequences. Stonehill believes his controversial theory is the key to developing an enzyme replacement therapy capable of specifically targeting patient's muscles.
It turns out Dr Stonehill is in desperate need of finance to trial his theory and so he and Crowley join teams. Their plan: for Crowley to use his business prowess to sell Stonehill's theory to the Venture capitalists in order for them to fund a start-up Biotech company.
The film thus becomes a race against time to develop a drug for clinical trials, which can then be administered to Megan and her brother Patrick who are already showing signs of muscle deterioration and have been given less than a year to live.
As Stonehill and Crowley embark on turning Stonehill's controversial theory into therapy we follow the road to clinical trial from Stonehill's cluttered and disorderly research laboratory in the University of Nebraska through to the hostile environment of a profit-making Biotechnology firm. Each character travels through this journey driven by their own set of goals: Stonehill's need for recognition of his theory, Crowley's personal desperation to find a cure, and the starkly contrasted Biotechnology firm's emotionless drive for profit. Unfortunately the film becomes quite mundane at times as it reflects the tremendous difficulties and constraints of modern drug development through numerous scenes depicting business meetings, research laboratories, and science theories. It's a shame that so much time was dedicated to the chronological portrayal of the story - Crowley, shown only as a desperate father and business man rushing around a lot, and Aileen Crowley (Keri Russell), seen only as a desperate mother, could have both benefited from (well essentially and desperately needed) some expansion of character. Unfortunately, though not unsurprisingly, Ford's character was also utterly underdeveloped, bar, perhaps, his mellowing towards Crowley, his wife Aileen, and children in the final scenes.
Overall, the film was compelling, and at times emotional, but this was purely due to the portrayal of Megan and Patrick who lived life with so much vitality, energy and optimism - even in the face of muscular deterioration they always managed to keep smiles on their faces (how Hollywood!). The remainder of the film and characters were lacking in depth, at times annoyingly over-the-top, and most probably a little dull. A more realistic and deeper portrayal of the family's journey would have been much welcomed.