A lab goes to Hollywood

Credit: COURTESY OF SCREEN SIREN PICTURES If you're trying to impress the nuances of genetics research upon an unknowing public, featuring half-naked, singing deliverymen who shimmy their way up DNA-shaped "ladders of love"

By | March 1, 2006

<figcaption> Credit: COURTESY OF SCREEN SIREN PICTURES</figcaption>

If you're trying to impress the nuances of genetics research upon an unknowing public, featuring half-naked, singing deliverymen who shimmy their way up DNA-shaped "ladders of love" might not be the most obvious way to go. But that's what you get in The Score, a stylized laboratory drama that switches at will between goofiness and artful poignancy.

The play-turned-film was the brainchild of Michael Hayden, a medical geneticist at the University of British Columbia. He commissioned the work, based loosely on his own lab, after the near completion of the Human Genome Project motivated him to communicate with the public about the project's implications. Kim Collier of the Electric Company Theatre in Vancouver took on the task, visiting Hayden's laboratory and attending its scientific meetings over a period of months to get a feel for lab culture.

In the wake of their own genetic discovery - the gene for a cholesterol transporter with mutations they implicated in Tangier disease - Hayden Lab members were excited to get involved in telling the fictional story of a group trying to isolate a cancer-causing gene. A subplot of the story, the mother of the play's principal investigator, Lynn Magnuson, dies of Huntington disease, also resonated with a member of the lab who is presymptomatic for the disease. On Friday afternoons, Hayden and his crew would knock back a few beers with the actors and playwrights as they read from the developing play and received feedback.

Collier didn't want the science impeding her creative vision unless blatant factual errors were evident. Hayden's goal was to show that "science is not a cold, calculated activity" but rather, "an incredibly passionate pursuit.

The resulting plot went as follows: Magnusson grapples with grant funding and competition in pursuit of the gene. The aforementioned dance number, a Backstreet Boys-esque riff on her ticking biological clock, inspires her to go searching for love in the cold room. The resulting encounter with her scruffy-haired subordinate, Benny, leads to an unplanned pregnancy, though in reality, Hayden has been told by his lab, "the cold room is not an optimal place" for such activities. ("Like a gene in a mouse, you knock me out," Benny croons.) Lynn is haunted by fears of what her own genes hold in store for her and her unborn child.

"The creative process in its purest form is exactly the same in great art and great science," says Hayden. In its attempt to prove this, the film pieces together a caricatured portrait of a lab and its tangled web while managing to check off a number of major themes: big versus small science, science versus religion, the lure of selling out. Magnusson runs her lab like a district attorney's office, and its ultimate success in finding the cancer-causing mutation is conveniently signaled by a flashing computer screen: MUTATION DETECTED. Likely? "There are times that you see a mutation in the gene, and it's just like that," Hayden insists.

Industry is represented in the finger-snapping persona of one Michael Stockholder. A failed scientific collaboration with Big Science in the form of an oily French researcher leading a cadre in matching salmon uniforms assumes the sinister intrigue of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

After Collier received multiple requests to stage the play across the country, they decided to go forward with a movie, backed by Genome Canada. The film debuted at the Vancouver International Film Festival last fall, aired on CBC television in January, and is being reviewed for TV broadcast in the United States, according to producer Leah Mallen. For the most part, says Hayden, The Score "captured the flavor" of his lab. The dancing deliverymen made it to the top of his favorites list: "It just had a good beat."

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