Harrison Ford film based in part on UF researcher

Dr. Barry Byrne, left, and producer Michael Shamberg are shown on the set of "Extraordinary Measures."

Photo courtesy of UF College of Medicine
Published: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 5:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 5:24 p.m.

Dr. Barry Byrne, pediatric cardiologist and genetics expert at the University of Florida, doesn't expect his brief appearance in the film "Extraordinary Measures" to make history.

His work in gene therapy to treat conditions such as Pompe disease, however, just might.

Byrne is director of UF's Powell Gene Therapy Center. He is also one of the researchers on whom the character of Robert Stonehill, played by Harrison Ford, is based.

"Extraordinary Measures" opens nationwide Friday.

The film depicts how John Crowley, played by Brendan Fraser, battles to find a cure for Pompe disease, a rare and complex form of muscular dystrophy that afflicts his two youngest children.

Children with Pompe disease cannot produce the enzyme acid alpha-glucosidase, or GAA. Without GAA, sugars and starches that are stored in the body as glycogen accumulate and destroy muscle cells, particularly those of the heart and respiratory muscles.

Byrne has spent 15 years researching potential treatment for Pompe disease. The original clinical trial for the drug used to treat the Crowley children was designed by Byrne and his team at UF.

In January 2003, Megan and Patrick Crowley received the enzyme replacement therapy, developed by the biotechnology company Genzyme. The children are still on respirators, but Crowley credits the experimental trial with saving their lives.

Crowley's quest for a treatment for Pompe disease was chronicled in a book by Geeta Anand, "The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million -- and Bucked the Medical Establishment -- in a Quest to Save His Children." Harrison Ford obtained the movie rights and filming began last April.

Byrne served as a technical advisor on the film and has a brief appearance as an extra. He and his son, 17-year-old Tyler, were on the set in Portland, Ore., and had the opportunity to meet Ford, Fraser and producer Michael Shamberg.

"The movie focuses on John (Crowley) and the scientists he worked with to develop a treatment," Byrne said. "The filmmakers strived to create a story the audience will understand. I think it will resonate with people to see how much a parent will go through for his kids."

"The efforts of the scientific team in this story represent how many different talents are required to develop a novel medical treatment," he said Thursday. "The patients face many ongoing challenges, so I expect the efforts of the team to continue and I am honored to be part of that effort."

Byrne and other UF researchers, including Paul Reier, professor of neuroscience in the College of Medicine, and David Fuller, associate professor of physical therapy in the College of Public Health and Health Professions, continue their research on Pompe disease. A cure has yet to be found.

Byrne believes gene therapy will augment the current treatment, which involves intravenous infusions to replace the missing GAA enzyme.

Clinical trials of a gene therapy for Pompe-related breathing problems in six infants are expected to begin at UF this summer.

Friday, however, Byrne will be in New York for the premiere of "Extraordinary Measures," where he'll walk the red carpet with the likes of Ford and Fraser. He'll see the finished film for the first time.

Look for the UF researcher on screen during the film's opening credits. You'll spot him standing next to Fraser on a bus platform, wearing a bright blue sweater.

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