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Extraordinary Measures

Bonni McCoy, C&EN Contributing Editor

poster "Extraordinary Measures," CBS Film Studio's debut, is the big-screen version of a science-driven story too extraordinary to go untold, however imperfect the telling. Inspired by the true events chronicled in Geeta Anand's 2006 book, "The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million—and Bucked the Medical Establishment—in a Quest to Save His Children," "Extraordinary Measures" follows Oregonian marketing executive John Crowley's (Fraser) desperate crusade to help his children survive Pompe disease, a rare neuromuscular disorder.

He and his wife, Aileen (Russell), have three children; their youngest two, eight-year-old Megan (a magnetic Droeger) and six-year-old Patrick (Velazquez), both have Pompe. Because the disease usually claims its victims by age nine, Crowley gets caught in a grim, sleepless game of beat-the-clock.

In the film's first hour, director Tom Vaughan has a resolute Crowley tracking down renegade biochemist Robert Stonehill (Ford), spurred by Stonehill's reputation as an enzyme-creating wunderkind. Stonehill—a composite character based on many scientists who have worked on Pompe—suffers from social asperity and has an extremely short fuse that makes him ill-suited for either politics or tea parties, but it's his scientific discoveries and commitment to continued research that Crowley's after. The Harvard M.B.A. soon quits his lucrative post at Bristol-Myers Squibb and teams up with Stonehill to raise venture capital for a biotech start-up (Priozyme on screen, Novazyme in reality).

Hour two finds the unlikely duo dismayed but undefeated as they realize their investors aren't going to pony up more bucks to sustain Priozyme. So it's out of the lab and off to the boardroom again, this time to sell the fledgling company to pharma giant Zymagen (real-life counterpart is Genzyme). Throughout, there's much bickering between business-savvy Crowley and fiercely independent Dr. "I'm not interested in money; I'm a scientist!" Stonehill. Meanwhile, in the shadow of scientific discovery's glacial pace, Megan and Patrick grow increasingly weak.

"Extraordinary Measures" sidesteps sappy medical genre melodrama, thanks in part to its talented cast and unsentimental treatment of wheelchair-bound kids on ventilators, but mostly because it gives viewers something new: A fascinating tutorial on the relationship between drug discovery and big business. "In all the screenings I've been to, I haven't had anybody say they couldn't follow what was going on during the business talks," John Crowley, who is now with Amicus Therapeutics, tells Reel Science. "I think the filmmakers did a really good job of making those discussions understandable."

Regarding scientific accuracy, Crowley says Ford took great pains to ensure that all the science discussed is correct. "Every diagram on the white boards and all the lab equipment that's seen are what would really be used." Indeed, readers may warm to hear terms such as glycosylation and GMP bandied about in a mainstream movie. Likewise, a description of the enzyme replacement drug that finally makes it to clinical trials might well resonate with a drug industry researcher: "Crude, uninspired ... but ready."

Some of what gives "Extraordinary Measures" its circa-1980s TV-movie-of-the-week tone seems unavoidable—its indulgence in talky exposition to describe complicated material, its frequent use of establishing shots and title cards to eliminate geographic confusion in a peripatetic story. Less forgivable is its overuse of extreme close-ups and, especially, an extra-cheesy musical score, which culminates in lactose intolerance as Eric Clapton's "Change the World" soars over the epilogue.

John Crowley (the man and his celluloid persona) could credit many factors for his success—innate intelligence, supportive family, Ivy League connections, strong work ethic, dogged spirit. Yet a critical advantage is his recognition that living with the very people his work aims to cure is not, as corporate bigwig Kent Webber (Harris) claims, "bad for scientific objectivity," but the opposite: a powerful, passion-driven call to action. Crowley tells Reel Science of the yin and yang of objectivity and emotion as it applies to working partnerships such as the one between Stonehill and Crowley: "You can see it in the antagonistic aspects of their relationship, the confusion and frustrations when big business and science come together." Still, every once in a while, it leads to something extraordinary.