‘Decoding Annie Parker’ portrays hunt for breast cancer genes

Film follows both a cancer survivor and the researcher who found BRCA1

GENE HUNTING  Helen Hunt (left) plays geneticist Mary-Claire King in a film directed by Steven Bernstein (right) about the search for breast cancer genes.

Decoding Annie Parker

Today, women with a family history of breast cancer can get a simple genetic test to learn if they are at high risk of developing the disease. But not long ago, most doctors scoffed at the idea of a “cancer gene,” as the new film Decoding Annie Parker shows.

The story is based on the real life of Ann Parker, a woman who has survived both breast and ovarian cancer. Parker (played by Samantha Morton) becomes obsessed with learning why women in her family keep succumbing to breast cancer. Her doctors, with one notable exception, tell her there is no such thing as inherited breast cancer; her family has just had a spate of bad luck. But Parker can’t shake the suspicion that there is “something inside” causing the problem.

Intertwined with Parker’s often funny narrative is the story of another woman, real-life geneticist Mary-Claire King, and her effort to find genes linked to breast cancer. The film captures exactly what a tall order King (played by Helen Hunt) and her team had to fill. 

King started from scratch in the early 1970s, when it could take a decade or more for a 2.5-ton mainframe computer to crunch data on a handful of patients. She and her team would have to sort through up to 100,000 genes in thousands of women to find one common to breast cancer patients. When King’s story begins in the film, she has compiled data on about 80 women. She also faces naysayers who argue that cancer can’t be hereditary.

It’s no spoiler to say that King eventually succeeded at identifying the Breast Cancer Associated gene 1, or BRCA1. Women, like Parker, who inherit a mutant copy of the gene are at a greatly increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

Parker and King never met in real life until this film was made (unlike in the movie), but writer and director Steven Bernstein included both their stories to depict the role of cancer research in both patients’ and scientists’ lives.

Bernstein admits he folded other women’s stories into Parker’s, and “made up a lot of things,” but the science he portrays is anything but fiction.

The film gives peeks into the very real challenges the researchers faced. But Decoding Annie Parker isn’t a documentary; it’s a feature film that gives science real respect.

The movie is being shown in October at film festivals and fundraising events for breast cancer charities, and its wider release is being planned for some time next year.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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