“The football coach makes more than my annual research budget,” Harrison Ford as Dr. Tom Stonehill in Extraordinary Measures.
We recently attended a screening of the film Extraordinary Measures sponsored by the Washington Biotech Association (WBBA). The film is a semi-fictional account of the real life story of John Crowley’s determination to speed a new drug to market to help manage his childrens’ rare chronic disease. The film, released in 2010, was produced by Harrison Ford, and stars him as “Dr. Tom Stonehill”, an amalgamation of a number of doctors that John Crowley worked with in real life. John Crowley is played by Brendan Fraser. Keri Russell plays his wife Aileen Crowley, and we have no doubt that the real Aileen had a lot more to do in real life than poor Keri in this film who has to deliver unfortunate lines like “the medicines are working. “
Film critique aside, the true story is quite fascinating, and you can find out more on the Crowley family’s website and in the book by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Geeta Anand, The Cure. Two of the three Crowley family children, Megs and Patrick have Pompe disease, a rare condition that is related to muscular dystrophy. At the time the film starts, life expectancy for children with this disease is 9 years, and as Megs approaches her 8th birthday, John becomes driven to find a cure. Poring over research late at night, he finds some interesting theories by Dr. Tom Stonehill, and on impulse flies to Nebraska to try to meet the doctor, who turns out to be ornery and eccentric. Also on impulse John promises Dr. Stonehill that he will find funding. He does, and the two manage to set out building a company. However it becomes pretty clear that while Dr. Stonehill most likely has the right solution to manage Pompe, he knows nothing about bringing a drug to market, and while John understands the business side, like how much revenue a Pompe patient will generate over a lifetime, his experience usually takes over after all the manufacturing problems are solved.
The solution comes in the form of a large drug company that buys them out, mostly for Dr. Stonehill’s experience. John and Dr. Stonehill are now rich, and John buys a gigantic house but Dr. Stonehill doesn’t cash his check because he doesn’t believe has earned the money. It’s a bit disconcerting to see the Crowley’s in a multi-million dollar home when earlier in the film they mention that they have $40,000 monthly medical bills, and when earlier they were calling all their friends to fundraise for their foundation. It seems like there might be better uses for the money, and Aileen doesn’t seem all that comfortable with the home that John justifies as “the kids love it.” However, at this point he doesn’t know that a way to manage the disease will be found, so the rationale is probably that they should be happy in their short lives.
John and Dr. Stonehill both try to shake things up a bit at the drug company. John out of desperation to save his children’s lives, and Dr. Stonehill because he’s a maverick. What’s interesting about this segment is that while some of the drug company executives seem cold and clinical, they are trying to follow procedures for the safety of the general public, and John, while driven by love for his family and others like his does face some ethical issues with his close involvement in the drug trials.
If you have an interest in the pharma business or how drugs are brought to market, this is an interesting and enjoyable film. Unlike a similar film also based on true life adventures in big pharma, Love and Other Drugs, this one is suitable for the whole family and children will probably really enjoy it both because it’s based on a real life drama and for the bubbly and determined Megs Crowley who gets some of the best lines, like “My hobbies are video games and penguins.”
Definitely check out this short video featuring the real Crowleys that fills in some of the background details and shows how extraordinary the achievement really is.
If you do watch the film, be on the lookout for a cameo from the real John Crowley in one of the early fundraising meetings.