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Zallen consults for 'Chicago Hope' show

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 17 - January 23, 1997

In February, when the television program Chicago Hope airs a segment dealing with gene therapy on a man with a brain tumor, the expert advice of a Virginia Tech professor will be part of the unseen background.

Jennifer Levin, the story editor of Chicago Hope, consulted Doris Zallen concerning the human issues behind gene therapy for the February 17 program and sent her a baseball cap with Chicago Hope on it. The cap "isn't me," Zallen said, trying on the headgear; but consulting for the popular television program was "an interesting experience, a change of pace from scholarly, academic things."

Zallen, an associate professor of science and technology studies and humanities in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, has been studying ethical issues related to gene therapy for some years. She also originated and directs the Choices and Challenges forums that have looked at issues as diverse as water quality and genetic engineering.

Levin, who is also a physician, got the idea for a story involving gene therapy from an article she had clipped for her files, Zallen said. The executive producer had heard about suicide genes and thought that sounded likea dramatic idea for the program. They then networked from expert to expert until the idea became solid.

Levin heard of Zallen through her membership on the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee of the National Institutes of Health, where Zallen has been involved in making policy about the use of gene therapy in the U.S. "She had heard I was interested in the human side of gene therapy," Zallen said. Zallen's field of expertise includes not only the way people make decisions in times of crisis, but also patient's-rights and informed-consent issues.

Zallen gave Levin a crash course in gene therapy and the use of the so-called "suicide gene" in that therapy. In experimental procedures, gene therapy involving the suicide gene is sometimes used to try to correct a problem such as cancer of the brain. Viruses containing the suicide gene thymidine kinase(TK) are introduced into regions of the brain of the person with cancer. The viruses containing the TK gene will search out and insert themselves into dividing cells, and, since the only dividing cells in the brain are the cancer cells, it enters those. The person is then injected with Ganciclovirreg., a drug known to kill cells that contain the TK gene. The Ganciclovirreg. Then seeks out and kills the only cells in the body that contain the TK gene—the cancer cells.

The procedure has been done with adults with not-very-promising results, Zallen said. Still, she said, some of the patients, after the treatment, seem to be living longer than otherwise expected.

Zallen was amazed at the timing of the episode of Chicago Hope—the short time in which the editors and writers have to gather information, write the script, and shoot the program. She was a little worried that the show might make people think gene therapy is an accomplished fact instead of the experimental procedure it is at present. The general public tends to think gene therapy is a wonderful new treatment already available to them, when it isn't, she said. "It's experimental."

Still, the writers must "balance what's real medicine or science and what works well as a story," she said. "They might take liberties with the science when they have to make the story move more effectively."

Even so, she tried to impress upon them the fact that people need information to make choices. "Usually, people don't come to this {gene therapy} until they've exhausted everything else," she said. "There are ethical issues. Desperate people often make poor choices."

Choices about experimental therapies must be described in such a way that the patient is not misled, Zallen said. "People must make the decision {whether to have the therapy}, not the doctor."

Zallen will have to make an exception to her schedule to watch "her" episode of Chicago Hope on February 17. While she was able to watch the program fairly regularly when she was on research leave and could set her own schedule, she now teaches a class the morning after Chicago Hope airs and usually can't make time to watch it.