Practical applications of genomics can be seen in Bullfrog Films' recent release, Cracking Cancer. The riveting stories of cancer victims—some who survive, some who do not—grip viewers as they learn about the science behind some of the latest cancer-fighting techniques. In particular, viewers learn about a British cancer agency called Personalized OncoGenomics. The scientists working there carry out clinical trials on cancer patients in ways unique to each individual by sequencing the patients' particular cancers. Honors and advanced placement students would benefit from watching this video both in affirming their understanding of genetics and in generating new understanding around biotechnologies.
Dr. Janessa Laskin appears on camera to describe the process by which they identify treatment for their patients. In short, a biopsy is made of a patient's tumor. The sample is genetically sequenced. DNA from one of the patient's normal cells is also sequenced. The two sequences are then compared, and the research scientists and doctors look for mutations that make the two sequences different. They specifically look for mutations on oncogenes (i.e., genes associated with cancer development). By understanding the specific ways in which the genes are different, they are able to propose unique treatments. Some of the treatment is unprecedented, such as the use of diabetes medication to block a growth factor.
Not every story has a happy ending. Viewers will meet survivors, and they will get to know others who eventually succumbed to their illness. In some cases, they will hear the story directly from the deceased person and find out later that the treatment failed to work. In that sense Cracking Cancer offers an authentic look at both the advantages and shortcomings of biotechnology. But rather than inspire discouragement, this film may motivate students to consider cancer research careers. The cast of scientists is as diverse as the treatments they provide.
While this film could compliment a classroom lesson, the producers have not developed curriculum to support that kind of integration. Educators looking to use the film in meaningful ways will have to develop their own film-related activities. Moreover, the scientific content of the film, while not overwhelming, is better suited for upper-level high school biology courses.