What if finding “The One” meant finding the person whose genome is most compatible with your own?
That’s the question raised by an upcoming movie called The Perfect 46. Writer/director Brett Ryan Bonowicz presented a near-final version of the film on Wednesday night at the Consumer Genetics Conference in Boston. Self-driving cars and disposable electronic package trackers set the film in an unspecified year in the future, but one that isn’t so far away that you can’t find a VCR or bulky television set.
The story centers around a genome-analysis company, The Perfect 46, that has developed an algorithm to determine the likelihood of prospective parents having a child with genetic disease. The promise is that future generations could be free of single-gene disorders like cystic fibrosis or even complex diseases like diabetes, if only everyone would work together to prevent these conditions in their children.
Sure, it sounds a bit like Gattaca, but unlike that 1997 film, The Perfect 46 does not feel like it’s happening in some distant era. In fact, I was struck by how unfuturistic it all seemed.
The real genetic analysis startup GenePeeks already says it can help sperm bank clients avoid donors whose genetic material may cause disease when combined with their own (see “Genetic Screening Can Uncover Risky Matches at the Sperm Bank”). And for couples planning to have a baby together, Counsyl and GoodStart Genetics can screen one or both partners to see whether they carry any DNA variants that could cause disease if combined with a similar genetic problem (see “Better Screening for Deadly Genetic Diseases”).
I met Bonowicz at the conference and he agreed that his science-fiction film is not that far outside the realm of possibility. “Once I had the idea to write the film I realized I had to make it this year or not at all because a company is going to be doing this in four to five years,” he says.
On a very small scale, genetic matchmaking is already happening, albeit not led by a company but by families affected by the disease and concerned medical groups. In the last few decades, the number of children born with Tay-Sachs disease—a neurodegenerative disorder that often takes a child’s life by the age of five—has been reduced by 90 percent in North American Ashkenazi Jews. Bulldozing that disease depended on gene-savvy matchmakers and in utero testing.
Another difference from Gattaca is the lack of a committed stance to whether genetic screening is a good or bad idea. The film’s protagonist heralds his matchmaking algorithm as a way to eliminate disease, but the film also touches on some of the fears surrounding genetic screening in reproductive medicine: What is a genetic defect and what is valuable human variation? Who decides what is healthy and what is not? When is it okay to intervene? And what if the screening doesn’t go as planned? Bonowicz says he hopes that audiences will have conflicting opinions about the film. “I wanted to start a conversation,” he says. “That’s the only way to push forward.”
Bonowicz is looking to premiere a final version of the movie at a film festival next year.