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Translational Science on the Big Screen

Translational Science on the Big Screen

W. Ian Lipkin contributes to the pandemic thriller Contagion.

W. Ian Lipkin, The John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, recently found himself mentoring a new kind of student—the Hollywood variety. Lipkin, also director of the Center for Infection and Immunity, served as senior technical advisor for Contagion, the pandemic thriller released in September 2011. The advising process started three years earlier, when the Academy member was recruited to work on the big-budget film.

NYAS: Why did you sign on as an advisor for Contagion?

Lipkin: I had been asked to review movies in the past and most of the time, my reviews were negative. This was the first time I signed on to help in the creation of a movie. I was very impressed with the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, because he came to this with no preconceived notions. Both Scott and the director, Steven Soderbergh, were committed to a strong scientific foundation (incidentally, they're both kids of academics, so they grew up in that tradition).

Additionally, the movie provided a unique opportunity to educate millions of viewers about the challenges—scientific, political, economic, logistical, and humanistic—of emerging infectious diseases, and the opportunities we have to address them.

NYAS: How does the topic of the movie relate to what you do on a daily basis?

Lipkin: Our Center is known for its work in pathogen discovery, surveillance, diagnostics, and immunotherapeutics. We have programs in the developing world, including one focused on the Nipah virus, the inspiration for the virus in the film.

NYAS: In which aspects of the movie-making process were you involved?

Lipkin: I presented several scenarios for the pandemic, and recommended the one that was selected. Thereafter, Craig Street, a bioinformatician at the Center for Infection and Immunity, and I designed the virus by downloading existing viral sequences from a GenBank database and stitching them together. We then created three dimensional virus models based on structures of Nipah and Hendra, which were solved by Bowden and colleagues at Oxford, and described its evolution over the course of the pandemic.

I also helped with dialogue; made suggestions for props, set, makeup, and costume design; helped to train actors in the specifics of laboratory work; and connected the crew and cast to laboratory and public health scientists for expertise and insights I could not provide. We also recorded portions of the soundtrack at Columbia—biocontainment doors opening and closing, whirring centrifuges, cages rolling down hallways.

NYAS: Do you feel that the finished movie accurately represents the work of an infectious disease scientist?

Lipkin: Consultants don't, nor should they, have control of the finished work. Nonetheless, I am pleased with the outcome and the feedback from my colleagues has been positive too.

There are minor issues like the time from virus discovery to having a vaccine might be six months rather than four, or that the incubation period is too short. But by and large, the movie is scientifically plausible. Furthermore, it shouldn't take six months to make and distribute a vaccine. We can do better.

NYAS: How does this film address the issue of translational science?

Lipkin: In this film, we're trying to engender interest in supporting translational work: developing vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics to reduce the impact of disease. We think this film is timely because there is a threat to science funding at all levels: state, federal, and global. This film makes the case for why it's important to not only maintain support, but increase it. The risks are too great.

NYAS: What are your biggest professional priorities when faced with a new microbial threat?

Lipkin: I start out with a series of questions: What is it? Where did it come from? How is it transmitted? What does it do and how? Where is it going? Is it stable or is its pathogenicity changing? Is everyone equally vulnerable, and if not, why not?My action items include answering the questions, building and implementing diagnostic tools for clinical management and surveillance, and establishing countermeasures.