Public Education Through Film with Chris Durrance, The Gene

March 2020

As part of its 2019 strategic plan, ASHG renewed its commitment to engaging with the public about genomics. ASHG is working to create new resources and opportunities, but is also highlighting excellent outside resources. One such resource is the upcoming film, The Gene: An Intimate History, based on the bestselling book by  Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD. The four-hour series traces the history of the gene from ancient times to today’s quest in genetics research labs. The series premieres on PBS on April 7 and April 14, airing at 8:00 PM U.S. eastern time (check local listings).

We sat down with Chris Durrance, one of the film’s directors from Ark Media, to discuss the film.

Chris Durrance, Ark Media

ASHG: How did this documentary come to be? Why turn a bestselling book into a film?

CD: Sid Mukherjee, Ken Burns, Barak Goodman, [the senior producer on this film], Jack Youngelson [the film’s other director], and I worked together on the film adaptation of Sid’s first book, “The Emperor of All Maladies.” These are big projects, and there’s a lot of people involved. So, we made that into a six-hour series; it was hugely successful.

Sid wrote a second book and came back to us and said, “Let’s do this one too.” And we all leapt at the chance, because he’s such a vivid storyteller. He’s obviously a wonderful scientist, but he’s a truly brilliant writer with such an eye for detail and color and story that we just couldn’t say no. So we read the book as soon as it came out, and we started thinking through the film and how we’d bring this to the screen and make this compelling television.

ASHG: What were your main goals for the film?

CD: I think there’s a couple of things that we wanted to do. The first is not just to home in on the key milestones in genetics, but to try to unpack who the characters were behind these stories –  to try and bring them to life, not just for what they did, but for the context in which they did it and what drove them and how they got there. Sid’s book was a great template because that’s so much of the way that he writes and tells these stories.

The other thing that we wanted to do – and here it was slightly different from the book – we felt we really wanted to live in the present day. We did want to tell a history; we did want to tell the story of how we got to today, but we didn’t want to wait for today to be at the end of the film. We wanted today to be very much a part of the experience of watching the film. So, we set about trying to find stories and trying to find characters who would help pull viewers along on this story.

SR: Why did you decide to make this film now?
CD: It felt like the perfect time to be telling this story. The questions that genetics is forcing scientists and the wider public to confront are so important. For the public to be able to participate meaningfully in that debate, we felt that bringing these stories to light would help people to understand the issues to do with the past and the challenges today.

ASHG: A 2020 ASHG survey of American adults found that 55% had not heard of precision medicine. How will this film help to increase public interest in genetic medicine and genetic technologies?

CD: I hope that viewers will see these human stories, will see the science brought to life, will see people just like them, and see the connections between their life and genetics. It’s going to be a part of all our lives. We’re approaching a time where, we may not be able to treat many genetic diseases, but we’ll be able to understand them, we’ll be able to help families tackle them.

We’ll be faced with questions about what it means to diagnose a newborn, what it means to be able to test for these sorts of diseases, what it means if you’re doing in vitro fertilization and selecting diseases out… Should we even be calling them diseases? We hope that this film will help the public understand the issues involved and bring to life stories that will make genetics compelling for them.

ASHG: How could this film benefit scientists already trained in genetics and genomics?

CD:  We’ve spoken to a lot of scientists as we’ve been making this film. For a lot of them, there is an excitement when the thing that they work on every day is brought to a wider public. Advances in genetics need to be talked about and understood and brought to life, so the broader public can understand the issues at stake. I hope that for many of the scientists watching, they become ambassadors for genetics.

ASHG: I like that word – “Ambassador.” Are there any specific things that you think they could do to engage the public?

CD: So much in life comes down to stories. A grant proposal is in a sense a story. It’s a story of an idea, a story of a project. Whatever the work that is that keeps a scientist up day and night and working through the weekend – it’s because there’s a story, it’s because there’s something driving it. Finding the nugget in the story that’s going to resonate with a lay person is a wonderful thing to work on and share.

ASHG: What is the message you hope people will take home from watching?

CD: Genes tie us all together. They don’t just tie humans together. When we look out into the universe, it’s kind of cosmic – but when you look out into the universe, life is the gene. This tiny, this simple, this inanimate molecule is at the heart of life. And it binds everything together – everything that has lived and everything that will live.

When we look at humans, at times, we get overly obsessed with these superficial differences in looks, in skin color… we have to realize at heart it’s genes that bind us together and with everything around us. I think that’s an important message as well. It’s not just about our past, it’s not just about our health, it’s not just about precision medicine, it’s not just about genetic tests… it’s about humanity.

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