Helen Berman helps create film showing how science saves lives
She’s a renowned scholar whose work in the field of structural biology has helped advance human health and influence science research and education.
But Helen Berman, a longtime Rutgers University professor, will be the first to admit that the impact her field has had on medical science remains largely unknown to the public, even though that impact includes monumental breakthroughs, such as treatment for AIDS.
“Nobody has any idea why you would want to know about a molecule,” says Berman, who co-founded and managed the Protein Data Bank. “But we know now that understanding the interactions of these molecules can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.”
Berman retired from Rutgers in 2016 as a distinguished professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the School of Arts and Sciences. But she never gave up trying to educate the world about the ways in which science—particularly the study of molecules in the body—is opening up vast new frontiers in human health.
Berman forged a bold new path in 2015 when she went on sabbatical at the University of Southern California. But it was not in the science departments where she found what she was looking for.
It was in the film school.
Berman became acquainted with faculty at the university’s School of Cinematic Arts including a professor of documentary filmmaking who encouraged her to come up with treatments - not the medical kind, but storylines for a movie.
“I was very intimidated,” Berman said. “I would bring this stuff to her, and she’d say, ‘no, that’s not emotionally compelling.’”
But she kept at it, and eventually began collaborating with filmmakers. The result of that collaboration is now complete: A documentary that showcases the advances in molecular science through the lives of ordinary people struggling with an extraordinary illness.
The film, Target Zero, brings viewers inside two Los Angeles health clinics and introduces them to patients with HIV, including two pregnant women who live in fear that they will pass on the virus to their babies. The patients’ poignant and powerful stories alternate with appearances by physicians and scientists who tell a parallel story: the development of the drugs that allows these patients to live their lives and have healthy children.
Accordingly, two of those scientists are Rutgers faculty members and one an alumnus, each of whom played significant roles in the battle against HIV: Eddy Arnold, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology in Arts and Sciences; James M. Oleske, a professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and Michael Gottlieb RC’69 who identified the first AIDS cases.
In addition, the film’s striking animation, which illustrates how HIV attacks cells and how drugs work to counteract it, was a collaborative effort that involved the work of Maria Voigt and David Goodsell of Rutgers.
“I wanted to tell a story that showed people how through understanding molecules you could develop these drugs that would help control the disease,” says Berman, who served as an executive producer on the film. ‘‘In the case of HIV, we went from it being a death sentence to a disease you could live with and lead a normal life.”
Directed and produced by Mary Posatko, Target Zero has been screened at Rutgers and USC and has won an award for Best Educational Media at the Raw Science Film Festival.
A screening, panel discussion, and Q & A organized by the Rutgers University Alumni Association was recently held in Manhattan, and additional screenings are set for Los Angeles and San Francisco. For further information on the film, visit the website targetzerofilm.org.
Two of the film’s three major storylines focus on the issue of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, or perinatal transmission, which can occur during pregnancy, delivery, or through breast feeding.
In the opening scenes, Oleske, one of the first doctors to discover pediatric AIDS cases, recalls just how disturbing his discovery was to the general public in the 1980s.
“HIV was considered a very ugly disease,” Oleske says. “When we started saying that children could get it; that upset people, and they didn’t want to believe it; because if a child could get this disease, then anybody could get this disease.”
Carmen, one of the women featured in the film, fights back tears as she recounts how during her first pregnancy she had asked a nurse whether her baby would be born with AIDS. The nurse reflexively said yes, Carmen said.
“I can remember breaking down and thinking ‘I don’t want this for him,’’’ Carmen says.
But, as the documentary explains, the development of antiretroviral drugs has significantly reduced mother-to-child transmission of HIV by suppressing the virus in the mother’s bloodstream.
Indeed, the annual number of HIV infections through perinatal transmission have declined by more than 90% since the early 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If a woman takes medicine as prescribed throughout pregnancy, labor, and delivery and gives HIV medicine to her baby for 4-6 weeks after delivery, the risk of transmitting HIV to the baby can be as low as 1% or less, the CDC says.
In Target Zero, doctors give one expectant mother, Elia, a powerful mix of several different drugs because she had not been taking any HIV treatment prior to her pregnancy. With animation showing the drugs fighting the virus, Arnold, the Rutgers professor, who like Berman, is a structural biologist, explains how the medicine works.
“In Elia’s case, the combination of drugs can actually block viral replication enough so that infection doesn’t occur,” Arnold says. “This is an example of how multiple drugs can actually target different parts of the virus.”
Arnold is not just speaking theoretically. He has spent decades researching the HIV virus, helping to discover two FDA approved anti-AIDS drugs.
He praised the film for showing the impact of what he describes as a long process of testing and experimenting with molecules in the lab.
“My lab has explored in atomic detail how this machine (virus) carries out its function,” he said. “It was a long, iterative process of developing molecules that can combine with the virus and break the machine.”
In the end, both Elia and Carmen give birth to healthy babies.
“We could really eliminate perinatal HIV infection and put ourselves out of business,” Oleske says. “But it’s a business I am happy to be put out of.”
For Berman, working on the film has provided a third act to her career, and a fitting grace note to her scholarly achievements. The first phase began in the 1970s when she was a researcher and professor. The second began in 1999 when she brought the RCSB Protein Data Bank to Rutgers and led it for 14 years. This global repository, which gathers data on the 3D structures of proteins and nucleic acids, and makes the knowledge universally available was co-founded by Berman in 1971.
She says her work with the PDB underscores her commitment to sharing knowledge with the science community. The film, she added, extends that sharing of knowledge to a wider audience.
“We are just a big bag of molecules, and everything that happens to us has to do with one molecule interacting with another molecule,” she says. “So I decided that one of the things I really wanted to do is to find a way to get this information across.”
In the process she developed a respect and admiration for filmmakers, and the enormity of the task of making a movie, from developing the story, to editing, to sound, to financing.
“There are thousands of films being made and the vast majority of them do not see the light of day,” Berman says. “This one is seeing the light of day, and that’s amazing.”
Berman said the film can also serve as a useful tool in educating medical students in the practice of compassionate care. The documentary captures the interactions between physicians like Alice Stek, a specialist in maternal HIV, and patients such as Elia, who was once homeless and a drug user. Berman is working on a curriculum.
“It’s very moving to watch Dr. Stek treat her patients with complete respect,” Berman says. “There is a lot of interest right now in training physicians to give compassionate care and I think the film captures precisely what that looks like.”