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Rampage: How Hollywood Sees Gene Editing

April 13, 2018
Genetic engineering has long been a favorite topic for Hollywood screenwriters to exploit to make box office hits. From Jurassic Park to Deep Blue Sea, film writers recognize that science fiction, or genetic engineering fiction, sells. There’s even a channel dedicated to science fiction, in which the science of biotechnology frequently makes a cameo.

In the eyes of screenwriters, CRISPR offers another opportunity. And “Rampage”, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, appears to be Hollywood’s first attempt at misconstruing gene editing technology to entertain film lovers. In short, the film focuses on gene edited animals – instead of lions, tigers and bears, think gorillas, crocodiles and wolves – that have been altered to be huge, deadly and downright mean.

Megan Theikling and Andrew Joseph from STAT News were lucky enough to catch an advanced screening of the film and sat down to discuss what the film’s directors got right and wrong about CRISPR. For argument’s sake, the reporters entertain some of the genetic changes that are paramount to the movie, however, they note that many of the mutations in the film aren’t really based on science. As Andrew explains:
“The idea is that the biotech company “weaponized” CRISPR research and introduced the genes of a bunch of other animals into our three monster-animals to give them traits such as those bat wings, or the spikes of some other animal, or the strength or regenerative abilities of certain kinds of bugs. This is all explained very quickly in some exposition by our disgraced yet heroic geneticist played by Naomie Harris. “I’m talking about extremely specific results,” says Naomie.

“One question I have is whether these animal features are polygenic as opposed to tied to one gene. That would make it a lot harder to introduce them into another species... Whether it [CRISPR] could be used to double the size of a gorilla overnight, well, that might be a different story…”

“The CRISPR’d animals of “Rampage” also become super aggressive, and behavior might be harder to change through editing. Maybe they just ramped up testosterone production somehow? I don’t know, Naomie didn’t explain that part.”

As Megan notes, the changes that can be made though gene editing aren’t the only things the film’s writers took creatively liberties with. She begs the question: Where are the regulators?
“All of the CRISPR work in this movie seemed to be WILDLY unregulated. There’s no FDA cameo here. There’s no Scott Gottlieb in skinny jeans.”

“In real life, there’s a whole system that keeps research in the U.S. involving CRISPR in check. The Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health regulate CRISPR as it relates to medical research, of course. But the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture also play a role in overseeing uses of CRISPR. And the Department of Defense — which is interested in genome-editing as a potential bioterrorism threat — has poured a lot of money into CRISPR research. So there are a lot of people overseeing this kind of work.”

And as Megan goes on to mention, the film’s producers relied more on fiction than on science when developing their plot:
“And as much as I absolutely loved this movie — I will be seeing it at least four more times in theaters, thanks MoviePass — I do think it played fast and loose with some of the science around CRISPR, which is a real thing that actually exists. I know it’s science fiction, but the closest thing I could find on the crew list to a science adviser was a “genetics lab tech advisor.”

Even “The Rock” himself weighed in on the movie’s use of CRISPR as a scientific background, making light of the fact that he doesn't always remember what the acronym means:


Overall, the reporters gave the film passing grades for its effort to use gene editing, but they were also a little perplexed by the vilification of the gene editing technology, considering the promise it holds for human health:
“Obviously, there are a whole lot of ethical and safety issues involved with playing with DNA, and I think most scientists take those seriously. But it’s interesting to see this movie given that we now have treatments on the market involving editing DNA. Sure, they’re not CRISPR-based therapies, but clinical trials using CRISPR are recruiting patients. And the CAR-T therapies and the gene therapy Luxturna are big deals for patients, and there are a lot more coming down the pike.”

Perhaps one day we’ll see a science fiction movie that focuses on the benefits of gene editing and CRISPR, especially for human health, agriculture and animal welfare… but then it wouldn’t be science fiction.

Read the full piece at STAT News here.