By Mark Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Harrison Ford movie “Extraordinary Measures” was released on DVD last month. This movie is based on a true story. It is about a young dad who is trying to find a cure for his two kids who have Pompe disease. The disease is a rare disorder that causes progressive muscular weakness throughout the body.
Eventually, the dad, played by Brendan Fraser, finds a research scientist working on a controversial cure for the disease. That scientist is played by Harrison Ford. In reality, much work on finding a cure was done by Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen.
Dr. Chen is a Taiwan University graduate who worked his way up at Duke University, from a residency to professor to chief of medical genetics at the Duke University Medical Center. He has also been mentioned as a Nobel candidate.
Work on finding a cure for the disease dates back to the 1950s. The early stages of research involved determining whether the disease stemmed from lack of an enzyme, which caused a breakdown in glycogen which in turn caused muscle dysfunction.
In the 1990s, two Dutch scientists found that application of a certain chemical obtained from a cow could increase enzyme activity in the muscles of mice.
In 1998, Dr. Chen and his colleagues at Duke University showed, for the first time, that an enzyme produced in Chinese Hamster Ovary cells could clear the glycogen and improve muscle function in birds. One bird that was treated was able to fly again.
Dr. Priya Kishnani, a female scientist of Indian descent, was mentored by Dr. Chen at Duke University and became heavily involved in the development of an enzyme to counteract the disease.
Work on the cure is at a point where a drug called Myozyme is currently being sold to treat the disease. The drug is being sold by a biotech company called Genzyme Corporation. Myozyme is the end product that stems from a long complicated trail of work. The work included Dr. Chen’s research and development efforts.
I have read various articles on this movie. Some of them say that the Harrison Ford character is based on Dr. Chen; others state that the character is actually a composite of several scientists that had been working on a cure.
One article stated that the character is based on another scientist that had no relationship to Dr. Chen.
In a New York Times interview, Geeta Anand, the writer of a book about the story of the cure, said that the character is a composite. It looks like the composite theory is probably the most accurate.
Nonetheless, the point remains, an Asian scientist played a large role in finding a cure. There have been other scientists involved besides Dr. Chen that were not included in the movie. Therefore, Dr. Chen is not the only one left out. However, it was pretty much guaranteed that, as an Asian scientist, there was no way that he would be portrayed in the movie.
Getting to play a scientist working on a cure for a rare disease is a heroic role. You get to be brilliant, creative, and noble. All these traits involve characteristics that Hollywood will generally not allow Asians to play. Instead, the role of the heroic scientist was reserved for a white male actor.
The usual excuse is probably that you have to have a white actor to sell the movie. However, this movie did poorly at the box office.
An article from online publication Box Office Mojo stated that the production budget was $31 million and the worldwide box office gross was $14,516,657. So that argument does not work with this movie, and it should not have been a big problem to have an Asian scientist portrayed in the movie.
There are worse movies when it comes to blatantly changing the race of a leading character. However, this movie, to some degree, shows that Hollywood is out of touch with the racial diversity of the real world. ♦
Mark Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.