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Reflections on MI Movie Night – GATTACA

By Shona Kerr and Gill Haddow

On a Thursday night, in the month of April, a group of interested folks gathered in the Brass Monkey pub, on Drummond Street in Edinburgh. In a dark back room, a Mason Institute event was about to take place organised by deputy directors, Nayha Sethi and facilitated by Gill Haddow.

The gathering was about stimulating medical socio-legal discussions through the format of 1) screening a relevant movie, in this case, the sci-fi classic GATTACA and 2) following with a short talk from a researcher interested in the area. On this occasion, Shona Kerr, from the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, led an animated audience discussion that continued into the bar.

Here we reproduce some of the conversation:

Gill: Classic GATTACA film, Shona, made in 1997 – it is getting old. I thought it interesting that the title is based on the first letters of guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine, the four nucleobases of DNA. What did you make of the evening?

Shona: The event was an unusually thought-provoking experience as, by total coincidence, it took place in the same week that the University of Edinburgh accepted delivery of its first two Illumina “HiSeq X” machines. These machines can sequence a whole human genome in three days, at a cost of approximately one thousand dollars. This allows a startling comparison with the Human Genome Project, which took around ten years to generate the first human genome sequence, at a cost in the region of three billion dollars.

Gill: How does that compare with the technology as depicted in GATTACA?

Shona: The almost instant genetic analysis depicted in the movie, such as sequencing the entire DNA of the hero of the story while he is still in the maternity ward, which had appeared so unlikely when GATTACA was released 17 years ago, is now unexpectedly close to reality.

Gill: Other aspects of the plot, and the type of society depicted, are thankfully still fantasy. But I mean the whole film is set on the premise about eugenics. The term used to describe those as ‘in-valid’ was particularly telling I thought in relation to who is thought ‘more able’ to contribute to society and those not.

Shona: I think this is why the event was so stimulating as it led to debate about where the new technology might lead and how essential it will be for all the stakeholders to engage closely with it. I thought the evening a great success.

Gill: Next up in June will be “Jar-City” with Professor Steve Sturdy on 15 June. Book your ticket now!

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