Celebrity fuels movie and device awareness

When a famous actress writes about her own mastectomy, the world listens.

Angelina Jolie wrote a story for the New York Times opinion pages about her own genetic risk of breast cancer, based on a mutation in her copy of the gene BRCA1. On June 6, Seattle audiences will get to see a new movie, Decoding Annie Parker, about the Seattle scientist, Mary-Claire King, who spent almost sixteen years discovering that genetic link. Adding to that, a Seattle biotechnology company is sponsoring the screenings of the movie.

Steve Bernstein, the movie’s director, calls the Jolie revelation and firestorm of social media awareness a “tragic serendipity” for his film. He spoke to radio reporter Stan Alcorn, on the show, Marketplace, on May 16. Jolie wrote about choosing to have a mastectomy – as a way to reduce her risk of getting cancer.

In another development tied to Seattle, the biotech company Atossa Genetics is in the middle of the debut of a marketing campaign for their device – called the Forecyte, which will be used to try to diagnose breast cancer earlier than by traditional methods.  They’ve announced they are sponsoring the two screenings of the movie, but would not say the size of their donation to Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF.)

The ForeCYTE device helps pump cells from a patient’s breast milk ducts into a testing container. The fluid is examined in a laboratory for the presence of maligant cells or cells that show pre-malignant signs. Based on that information, Atossa claims to be able to predict the patient’s likelihood of developing cancer. More details are available on their website.

During a phone interview, Chris Destro of Atossa said he did not want to reveal the dollar amount of the sponsorship that the company provided to SIFF. According to the movie’s own information, they are donating a portion of the ticket price for the screenings to King’s UW laboratory.

Atossa is publicly traded on the NASDAQ as ATOS. Company representatives are attending one of the largest cancer conferences of the year in Chicago from May 31-June4.

“We believe that our ForeCYTE Breast Health Test represents a breakthrough in breast cancer risk assessment testing. The ForeCYTE test can provide vital early detection of cancer or precancerous conditions and therefore help prevent breast cancer and save lives. We look forward to presenting the ForeCYTE test’s value at ASCO, the largest gathering of oncologists in the nation,” Destro said, in a news release. He is vice president of Atossa.

There isn’t an obvious link between the movie celebrating the pioneering genetic science of breast cancer and the new device+lab work that Atossa is marketing. Destro explained it this way: “We wanted to honor Dr. King and her contribution.”

There are two genes where mutations are known to change a woman’s risk of breast cancer, and they are called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Scientists believe there may be other genes yet to be discovered that might increase a woman’s risk. Of women diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, it is estimated that about 10 percent carry known genetic markers giving them an inherited risk.  Genetic testing pioneered by King allows a minority of women to make life decisions to lower their own risk.

King is the American Cancer Society Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and, since 1998, a member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She’s received 13 honorary doctorates including honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the French Academy of Sciences.

In blog posts to come, I will examine the Jolie awareness spike and what difference it might make for physicians and genetic counselors.

Here are a few resources for more details about the topic:

Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Center

Facing our Risk – patient advocacy non-profit