ASCO and ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation Collaborate With Filmmakers on Upcoming Documentary for PBS

Oct 16, 2018

In July, PBS announced that Ken Burns Presents The Gene: An Intimate History, a new 3-hour documentary, will premiere over 3 nights in spring 2020. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, and acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns will collaborate on the new documentary inspired by Dr. Mukherjee’s bestselling 2016 book, The Gene: An Intimate History.  The film will largely have the same production team, including filmmaker Barak Goodman, behind the Emmy Award-nominated Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, an adaptation of Dr. Mukherjee’s 2010 book which aired in 2015 on PBS.

“Science for me, like history, is the exploration of what has come before and the promise of the future,” Mr. Burns said in a press statement. “Working with Sid and Barak and the larger team on the Cancer film was an extraordinary opportunity to learn about the science behind cancer and the history of so many individuals and generations who have devoted their lives to fighting the disease, leading to today’s amazing breakthroughs. The Gene will allow us to untangle what is in some ways a more complicated story, the code of life itself, and see how that understanding is being applied to science and medicine today.”

Dr. Mukherjee, an ASCO member, is an assistant professor of medicine at the Department of Medicine (Oncology) at Columbia University and a staff cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center.

“It is truly an honor to be involved in this historic production,” Dr. Mukherjee said in a press statement. “Genes influence our forms and our fates, our behaviors and choices, and the forms, fates, behaviors, and choices of every living being. We are living in an era when humans are beginning to read and write this ‘code of codes’—our own code—with astonishing and unprecedented facility. Drawing elements from history, science, anthropology, ethics, and medicine, this Ken Burns production will demonstrate how our understanding of genetics has evolved over the decades, and how deeply our future will be impacted by it. From the birth of genetics in the pea-garden of a modest monastery in Central Europe to the sweeping excesses of eugenics in Germany and the United States, from the stories of scientists who first discovered the structure of DNA to the recent attempts to change the genetic material of human embryos, from the identification of the first genes that cause human illnesses such as cancer and cystic fibrosis to the landmark experiments that led to the mapping of the human genome, this film will bring an immensely powerful and impactful science—and its enormous influence on culture—to life on the screen.”

As our collective understanding of cancer has been deeply influenced by genetic and genomic discoveries, ASCO and ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation are partnering with The Gene project to engage the cancer community upon the film’s national release.

“ASCO and Conquer Cancer are natural partners for the documentary as our educational mission aligns closely with that of PBS,” said ASCO CEO Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, FASCO. “Scientifically, we are already seeing the transformative impact of genetics on cancer care and PBS provides a fantastic opportunity to reach the general public and share our excitement while explaining why further investment is so critical in this research area.”

“Conquer Cancer has a rich history supporting medical research that has led to formative advances in understanding genetic drivers for a number of common cancers,” said Nancy R. Daly, MS, MPH, executive vice president and chief philanthropic officer of Conquer Cancer. “Through our partnership with PBS, we look forward to building national awareness of Conquer Cancer’s groundbreaking work that is deepening our collective knowledge of cancer genetics, genomics, and beyond.”

ASCO and Conquer Cancer are among an array of collaborative partners involved in engagement around the film, including the National Institute of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI); Genentech, a member of the Roche Group; the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health; 23andMe; Basser Initiative at Gray Foundation; Cancer Treatment Centers of America; Foundation Medicine, Inc.; Craig and Susan McCaw Foundation; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The involvement of these partners will enable the film to reach an even larger audience, engaging researchers, physicians, and patients in the national conversation about the topic. In the months building up to the national broadcast premiere, the group will organize screenings and discussions in cities across the country, working with local public television stations and a wide range of educational, medical, and scientific organizations.

Now in active production, Ken Burns Presents The Gene: An Intimate History, much like the book, will use science, social history, and personal stories to weave together a historical biography of the human genome while also exploring the stunning breakthroughs in understanding the impact genes play on heredity, disease, and behavior. From the story of the remarkable achievements of the earliest gene hunters and the bitterly fought race to read the entire human genome, to the unparalleled ethical challenges of gene editing, the documentary will journey through key genetics discoveries that are some of the greatest achievements in the history of science.

An advisory committee of leading scientists and National Academy of Sciences (NAS) members for The Gene will work with the filmmakers to offer expert analysis of the film’s scientific content. Dr. Mukherjee will serve as a consultant, creative advisor, and executive producer to the production. Award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodman will produce.

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