Category Archives: Medicine

Profile: ‘ER’ TV Writer/Advisor Channels Storytelling Towards Social Activism

Television writer, producer, activist and practicing pediatrician Neal Baer, MD.
Television writer, producer, activist and practicing pediatrician Neal Baer, MD.

It has become compulsory for modern medical (or scientifically-relevant) shows to rely on a team of advisors and experts for maximal technical accuracy and verisimilitude on screen. Many of these shows have become so culturally embedded that they’ve changed people’s perceptions and influenced policy. Even the Gates Foundation has partnered with popular television shows to embed important storyline messages pertinent to public health, HIV prevention and infectious diseases. But this was not always the case. When Neal Baer joined ER as a young writer and simultaneous medical student, he became the first technical expert to be subsumed as an official part of a production team. His subsequent canon of work has reshaped the integration of socially relevant issues in television content, but has also ushered in an age of public health awareness in Hollywood, and outreach beyond it. Dr. Baer sat down with ScriptPhD to discuss how lessons from ER have fueled his public health efforts as a professor and founder of UCLA’s Global Media Center For Social Impact, including storytelling through public health metrics and leveraging digital technology for propelling action.
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“The Panic Virus” and the Origins of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

The Panic Virus paperback version ©2012, Simon & Schuster, all rights reserved.

On February 28, 1998, the revered British medical journal The Lancet published a brief paper by then-high profile but controversial gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield that claimed to have linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine with regressive autism and inflammation of the colon in a small case number of children. A subsequent paper published four years later claimed to have isolated the strain of attenuated measles virus used in the MMR vaccine in the colons of autistic children through a polymerase chain reaction (PCR amplification). The effect on vaccination rates in the UK was immediate, with MMR vaccinations reaching a record low in 2003/2004, and parts of London losing herd immunity with vaccination rates of 62%. 15 American states currently have immunization rates below the recommended 90% threshold. Wakefield was eventually exposed as a scientific fraud and an opportunist trying to cash in on people’s fears with ‘alternative clinics’ and pre-planned a ‘safe’ vaccine of his own before the Lancet paper was ever published. Even the 12 children in his study turned out to have been selectively referred by parents convinced of a link between the MMR vaccine and their children’s autism. The original Lancet paper was retracted and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. By that point, irreparable damage had been done that may take decades to reverse.

How could a single fraudulent scientific paper, unable to be replicated or validated by the medical community, cause such widespread panic? How could it influence legions of otherwise rational parents to not vaccinate their children against devastating, preventable diseases, at a cost of millions of dollars in treatment and worse yet, unnecessary child fatalities? And why, despite all evidence to the contrary, have people remained adamant in their beliefs that vaccines are responsible for harming otherwise healthy children, whether through autism or other insidious side effects? In his brilliant, timely, meticulously-researched book The Panic Virus, author Seth Mnookin disseminates the aggregate effect of media coverage, echo chamber information exchange, cognitive biases and the desperate anguish of autism parents as fuel for the recent anti-vaccine movement. In doing so, he retraces the triumphs and missteps in the history of vaccines, examines the social impact of rejecting the scientific method in a more broad perspective, and ways that this current utterly preventable public health crisis can be avoided in future scenarios. A review of The Panic Virus, an enthusiastic ScriptPhD.com Editor’s Selection, follows below.
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Selling Science Smartly: ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’ and Breast Cancer as a Profit Industry

Earlier this year, the Susan G. Komen Foundation made headlines around the world after their politically-charged decision to cut funding for breast cancer screening at Planned Parenthood caused outrage and negatively impacted donations. Despite reversing the decision and apologizing, many people in the health care and fund raising community feel that the aftermath of the controversy still dogs the foundation. Indeed, Advertising Age literally referred to it as a PR crisis. If all of this sounds more like spin for a brand rather than a charity working towards the cure of a devastating illness, it’s not far from the truth. Susan G. Komen For the Cure, Avon Walk For Breast Cancer and the Revlon Run/Walk For Women represent a triumvirate hegemony in the “pink ribbon” fundraising domain. Over time, their initial breast cancer awareness movement (and everything the pink ribbon stood for symbolically) has moved from activism to pure consumerism. The new documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. deftly and devastatingly examines the rise of corporate culture in breast cancer fundraising. Who is really profiting from these pink ribbon campaigns, brands or people with the disease? How has the positional messaging of these “pink ribbon” events impacted the women who are actually facing the illness? And finally, has motivation for profit driven the very same companies whose products cause cancer to benefit from the disease? ScriptPhD.com’s Selling Science Smartly advertising series continues with a review of Pink Ribbons, Inc..
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From The Lab: Pharmaceutical Documentary a Blueprint for Hollywood Science Storytelling

A vial of the breast cancer drug Herceptin. Image ©Reuters, all rights reserved.

“It’s like a war. You don’t know whether you’re going to win the war. You don’t know if you’re going to survive the war. You don’t know if the project is going to survive the war.” The war? Cancer, still one of the leading causes of death despite 40 years passing since the National Cancer Act of 1971 catapulted Richard Nixon’s famous “War on Cancer.” The speaker of the above quote? A scientist at Genentech, a San Francisco-based biotechnology and pharmaceutical company, describing efforts to pursue a then-promising miracle treatment for breast cancer facing numerous obstacles, not the least of which was the patients’ rapid illness. If it sounds like a made-for-Hollywood story, it is. But I Want So Much To Live is no ordinary documentary. It was commissioned as an in-house documentary by Genentech, a rarity in the staid, secretive scientific corporate world. The production values and storytelling offer a tremendous template for Hollywood filmmakers, as science and biomedical content become even more pervasive in film. Finally, the inspirational story behind Herceptin, one of the most successful cancer treatments of all time, offers a testament and rare insight to the dedication and emotion that makes science work. Full story and review under the “continue reading” cut.
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REVIEW: Wide ‘Awake’: New Sci-Fi Series Takes on Sleep Science

Awake, and all images and screenshots, ©2012 NBC Universal, all rights reserved

As far back as last summer, when pilots for the current television season were floating around, a quirky sci-fi show for NBC called Awake caught our eye as the best of the lot. Camouflaged in a standard procedural cop show is an ambitious neuroscience concept—a man living in two simultaneous dream worlds, either of which (or neither of which) could be real. We got a look at the first four episodes of the show, which lay a nice foundation for the many thought-provoking questions that will be addressed. We review them here, as well as answering some questions of our own about the sleep science behind the show with UCLA sleep expert Dr. Alon Avidan.
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Go Red For Valentine’s Day

The Go Red For Women logo ©2012 American Heart Association, all rights reserved.

In years past, Valentine’s Day has been a fun chance to explore the more lighthearted aspects of science, as pertains to matters of the heart (such as our post on the neurobiology of love and dating). This year, we use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to talk about a different, more serious matter pertaining to our hearts — keeping them healthy. And while blogs, magazines and popular media provide men with no shortage of ideas about what to shower the many women in their lives with on Valentine’s Day, they provide little coverage of the biggest silent killer and danger to women every day: heart disease. So this year, join us in Going Red For Women and learning more about an issue truly close to our hearts. For more, click “continue reading.”
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REVIEW: Contagion

Contagion official movie poster ©2011 Warner Brothers, all rights reserved.

“Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone.” The austere slogan of the new film Contagion mirrors the gripping subject matter of the latest addition to the pandemic disaster movie club. One of the most science-oriented films to be released in the last few years, Contagion follows the path of several scientists, public health workers, and ordinary citizens as a full-fledged pandemic breaks out from an unknown virus. It explores scientific, moral, social and ethical questions for how we would prepare as a modern society if such a tragedy ever struck us. Additionally, Contagion is a cinematic ode to the visual and technical wonders of modern science, on full display here, both in the storyline and the beatifully-designed sets and costumes. For a full ScriptPhD review, including information on the behind-the-scenes science consultants that worked with the film’s producers to create scientific realism, click “continue reading” below.
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REVIEW: Limitless

Limitless poster and images ©2011 Relativity Media, all rights reserved.

How many times have you said to yourself, “If only I didn’t have to sleep.” Or “If only I tap into my brain’s full neuronal capacity, imagine the things I could do?” Such neurocognitive superpowers would seem to be the stuff of science fiction…for now. In the new film “Limitless,” these wishes unexpectedly come true for a struggling writer, but the results—and unexpected side effects—cause him to wonder whether it was all worth it. Sleek, stylish, sexy and well-crafted, “Limitless” is part scientific inquiry into the limits of expanding the pharmacopeia beyond current human capacities and part thriller to see if the main character who dares to try will get away with it. ScriptPhD.com’s full review of Limitless under the “continue reading” cut.
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Selling Science Smartly: Pfizer’s “More Than Medication” Campaign

“Ask your doctor if this hard-to-pronounce medication is right for you.” Sound familiar? It should. Over the last decade, it’s become difficult to watch an hour of television or read a magazine without running into a commercial for the latest cure for (insert disease here). For all of their ubiquity, the majority of ads are shockingly bereft of uniqueness. Bland, boring, and banal, they represent some of the worst of science creative in modern media. Here at ScriptPhD.com, we couldn’t think of a more appropriate category for the next installment of our ongoing advertising series “Selling Science Smartly.” Rather than expound on the plethora of bad pharmaceutical ads, we deconstruct a near-perfect Pfizer campaign out of Canada and interview the executive creative director behind the concept. Read our complete article under the “continue reading” cut.
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REVIEW: "Splice" (includes VIDEO interview with cast + crew)

Splice ©2010 Warner Brothers Entertainment, all rights reserved.

About a week and a half ago, scientists achieved a remarkable evolutionary stepping stone in the technological holy grail of eventually engineering synthetic life. Nicknamed ‘Synthia’ by her experimental progenitors, the latest discovery is a viable, self-propagating yeast cell hosting a bacterial Mycoplasma mycoides genome (consisting of non-biological DNA) purely composed in the laboratory. In eerily apt timing, Splice, a new science fiction thriller premiering this week, explores the scientific ramifications and bioethical morass encompassing the creation of a human-animal hybrid by a rogue superstar genetics couple. Under the “continue reading” cut, ScriptPhD.com’s review of Splice, discussion of the expanding frontiers of genetic engineering, and a special video interview with the director/writer, producer and stars of the film.

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