News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 4, 2014

‘Decoding’ a survivor

Film portrays monumental advances in identifying gene sequences, hereditary links for cancer

Dianne Frances D. Powell
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Two amazing women, one breast cancer discovery.

Wabash Valley viewers will get the chance to watch the story unfold on the big screen tonight thanks to the joint efforts of three local groups.

  A partnership between the Center for Genomic Advocacy at Indiana State University, the Wabash Valley affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the breast cancer survivors’ group P.I.N.K. has brought the independent film “Decoding Annie Parker” to town, with a one-time screening scheduled tonight at Showplace Terre Haute 12.

The film is based on true events surrounding the lives of two women: a heroic three-time cancer survivor, and a geneticist who made arguably one of the most important discoveries of the last century.

“The movie tells the story of the medical discovery that led to the identification of the genomic link of women in families with breast cancer that we use in medicine every day,” said Dr. Darren Brucken, co-founder of P.I.N.K.

In “Decoding Annie Parker,” Helen Hunt plays geneticist Dr. Mary Claire King, whose discovery of the breast cancer BRCA-1 gene mutation revolutionized the study of other common diseases. A decade and a half of research uncovered the genetic link to certain types of breast and ovarian cancer, which indicates that some of the cases of breast cancer may be hereditary.  

While the film explores King’s research journey and her questioning of all established medical views about the origins of cancer, it also splits time to tell the story of Annie Parker (played by Samantha Morton), who lost her mother and sister to breast cancer and later battled the same killer and two other types of cancer. The film follows Parker’s struggles and relationships with her family and friends, including her husband, played by “Breaking Bad” actor Aaron Paul.

“It’s such an important movie on many levels,” Brucken said.

Because it tells the story of breast cancer from both the personal and scientific perspectives, organizers felt it needed to be seen by a Terre Haute audience.

Rusty Gonser and Elaina Tuttle, professors of biology and leaders of the Center for Genomic Advocacy at ISU, learned about the movie and thought it was important in educating people about genomics and the technology available.

Gonser and Tuttle showed some of the technology during an interview at the center on Thursday. Equipment for examining cells and conducting analyses are being used by students and researchers at the university. One of them is a $250,000 piece of equipment known as Ion Torrent Proton, which can be used to sequence a human genome in about four hours, Gonser said.

“The science can help,” said Tuttle, a three-year breast cancer survivor.

“Genetics helps us understand who is likely to get cancer, as well as how to treat it once someone is diagnosed,” she said in a press release. “As we understand more about genomics, we will be able to develop ‘personalized’ treatments that will be more effective, because they will be tailored to an individual’s needs.”

While the technology can give us insight into prevention and cure, it needs to be handled carefully, Tuttle said, because there are ethical and privacy considerations that come with genetic testing and dealing with a person’s DNA.

But the knowledge helps.

“A lot of things that afflict us have a connection to genetics,” Gonser said. If people are aware of their genetic predispositions to breast cancers or other diseases, you can change your lifestyle” to lower your risk factors.

But the experts also noted that most breast cancers are not related to genes or family history, and even people who do not appear to have the cancer gene could still get the disease.

Early detection is important, Gonser said.

When caught early on, the survival rate for stage 1 and stage 2 breast cancer is now 98 percent, up from 73 percent 10 years ago, said Gwen Hicks, affiliate developer for the Wabash Valley affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Organizers hope that viewers learn many things from the movie.

Women who have/had breast cancer and their families may be interested to learn about the discovery of the breast cancer gene and the evolution of technology related to genetic testing, Hicks said.

It’s important “to see the evolution and the dedication of amazing scientists who … are working to find the cure,” Hicks said.

It might provide insight into what the potentials are for treatment and a cure, Hicks added.

Organizers will have information tables at the event. There will be raffle baskets, speakers before and after the movie and discussion about related topics.

P.I.N.K. and Komen purchased the 90 tickets required to bring the movie to Terre Haute, through a service called Gathr. Those 90 tickets have been given to breast cancer survivors for free.

“It was important to partner with them on this project,” Hicks said.

For Gonser and Tuttle, the partnership was important as well.

“[It’s] important to partner with outside units to let the community know what we’re doing as an institution,” Gonser said.

 “And [to] reach out to them [people in the community] to improve the quality of life as well,” he added. 

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or