In 1928, when Alexander Fleming returned home from vacation, he found his laboratory in a state of disarray. Tools cluttered his desk. Petri dishes were stacked on top of each other. Fleming wasn’t the most organized researcher, and that was going to save lives. He noticed that the mold had colonized his bacterial culture and killed it. He had just discovered penicillin. In response to the discovery, Fleming simply noticed: “Now that’s funny.”
Dr. Carl June, the oncologist whose quest to cure cancer fuels the compelling story of Ross Kauffman Tribeca documentary medicine and miracles, shares Fleming’s flippant, playful wonder at chance. When June tells the story of Fleming’s discovery, he sees it as a lesson: “Chance favors the prepared,” he says. “If you experiment enough, you will find things in the unexpected.” About his efforts to reprogram T cells to fight cancerous masses, he speaks with quiet determination. There is passion and admiration for the process. Confidence and humility in the face of results. These are, I suppose, the qualities of a tenacious researcher, but they also make June a fascinating doc subject.
medicine and miracles
Pull on the heartstrings and open the mind.
June is not the only subject of this film, however. Kauffman, known for his Oscar-winning feature documentary Born in brothels, weaves the story of the scientific genius with that of Emily Whitehead, a cancer patient desperate for solutions. Whitehead and his parents – Tom and Kari – made headlines in 2012 after June’s experimental treatment removed all traces of leukemia from his body. For those who have followed the story closely, the doc won’t offer many surprises, but for the uninitiated, Kauffman’s film is a thoughtful introduction.
medicine and miracles values the emotional aspects of June and Whitehead’s stories, then science, and finally context. Kauffman adopts June’s understanding of cancer as an enemy with which researchers are at war, and frames the paper around the personal stories of both subjects.
June’s interest in cancer research stems directly from his wife Cindy, who died of ovarian cancer in 2001. He speaks lovingly of her, texturing stories from their lives with anecdotes about her personality. . “She was a lot more social than me, so we balanced each other out nicely that way,” he says, stroking sepia-toned wedding photos. Caring for Cindy through her chemotherapy cycles opened June’s eyes to the impact cancer has on patients and their families, renewing her resolve to seek a solution.
The success of June and his research team’s experimental treatment — he avoids calling it a cure — has a lot to do with the convergence of disparate strands of his medical training. The oncologist’s foray into science began when he entered the US Naval Academy in 1971 to avoid the Vietnam War draft. His early research was dictated by the military, which sent him to medical school to study the treatment of bone marrow in people exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons. After interest in it dried up, June spent the 80s working on T-cell research and the 90s experimenting with gene therapy for HIV.
Kauffman alternates June’s story with that of the Whiteheads – switching between the two until their fates collide near the end. Emily was five years old when she was diagnosed with leukaemia. Her parents were initially hopeful about her chances of survival, but Emily’s cancer returned with more force. Most chemotherapy treatments stopped working and doctors almost resigned themselves to her fate.
Emily’s parents mostly tell the story, and I couldn’t help but wonder why an interview with Emily wasn’t included. His parents recount the heartbreaking stages of discovering their child with cancer, then recount how their lives changed afterwards. They eventually got in touch with a doctor who was preparing to start a trial of June’s experimental T-cell therapy. Emily became the first child to undergo the process.
Cost looms in the background of Kauffman’s paper, and I kept wishing for more details on finances: How much money does a family spend on treatment, transportation, and hospital stays? The cost came to mind when June spoke about her experiences and how a lack of funding nearly curtailed progress. Of medicine and men makes a strong case for the power and importance of scientific research, but three years of pandemic have revealed that medical breakthroughs are as much the product of chance as of individual and institutional resources.
Even Fleming ran into this problem. The legend of the discovery of penicillin doesn’t end with the eccentric scientist finding mold in his petri dishes: Fleming, it turns out, did not have the money to intensify his experiments and turned to an Oxford University professor for help securing grants from parsimonious bureaucrats.
As Of medicine and men comes to a tense end – Emily’s prognosis is initially grim, but she survives – the cost issue swells and then deflates, replaced by the euphoria of success. Today, Emily has been cancer-free for 10 years, making her officially cured. June and her team’s treatment has been used on more than 15,000 patients with different types of cancer. The future of the treatment of this disease is fortunately optimistic.