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‘From Controversy to Cure’ shows how Kendall Square went from empty lots to biotech mecca

Kendall Square, Cambridge, before redevelopment.Cambridge Redevelopment Authority

The documentary “From Controversy to Cure: Inside the Cambridge Biotech Boom” may have the year’s longest, dullest title. The film itself is short, clocking in at a tidy 57 minutes, and surprisingly lively. Perhaps too much so: Upbeat and slick, a lot of it has the look and feel of an infomercial. The infomercial celebrates both the biotech mecca that Kendall Square has become and MIT, whose MIT Video Productions produced the documentary.

There’s an awful lot worth celebrating. “Kendall Square is simply the densest collection of life scientists in the known universe,” says Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in, yes, Kendall Square. There are more than a hundred biotech firms in one square mile. Companies like Genzyme and Biogen have transformed medical science.


The film can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, starting Aug. 21. On Aug. 25, there’ll be a free online Q&A at 8 p.m. with director Joe McMaster and several scientists who appear in the film. Among them are the Nobel Prizewinners David Baltimore and Phillip Sharp.

What’s best about the documentary is twofold. First, it’s getting to hear from people like MIT professor Nancy Hopkins, Baltimore, Sharp, and Lander. (Notice how in shots of Lander the table lamp in the background of his office is shaped like a double helix.) Letting intelligent, passionate people talk intelligently and passionately about a complicated and fascinating subject may not be filmic, but here it’s gripping. So much so that the attempts to be filmic — a relentless stream of generic lab shots, as well as slick and uninformative computer-generated animations — become annoying.

The other great virtue is the concise history offered of how Kendall Square became world headquarters of biotech. Proximity to MIT was only part of the story. Another was the federal government having cleared a large chunk of real estate for a NASA research center in the ‘60s that never got built — thus making available sites for the likes of the Broad and Whitehead institutes. Another, paradoxically enough, was the Cambridge City Council’s imposing a short-lived ban during the mid-‘70s on recombinant-DNA research within the city limits. That’s what “controversy” is doing in the title.


“You’ve got to see it in the shadow of the atomic bomb,” Baltimore says of political opposition to genetic research, “because that was the singular event where the public became aware that science had done things they had never conceived of. And they kept worrying there was an atomic bomb hidden away in modern biology.” Instead, it was a golden goose.

So as a preventive measure Kendall Square and environs were zoned for biotech. In a happy version of the law of unintended consequences, this helped foster an industry.

That use of “controversy” is a bit misleading, since the dispute comes a decade after the story starts. So is the use of “cure” in the title. Yes, biotech has come up with many cures, plural, but cure, singular, does rather set the bar higher than even the life sciences can reach — yet.

The documentary includes a heartwarming segment on how a biotech tycoon’s grandson who has Gaucher disease leads an otherwise-healthy and active life, thanks to a treatment developed by his grandfather’s company. The name of the drug isn’t mentioned. Neither is its cost. According to the website of the National Gaucher Foundation such treatment generally costs in the vicinity of $200,000 annually.


“From Controversy to Cure” finds time to include a loud and confusing segment on an annual Battle of the Biotech Bands fundraiser. Perhaps that minute or two would have been better devoted to the economics of biotech as seen from the perspective of patients (and bankruptcy lawyers) rather than just scientists (and business executives). The documentary makes plain that the teaching of life sciences at MIT has been phenomenal and world-changing. Apparently, as regards the teaching of critical thinking, it’s somewhat less so.



Directed by Joe McMaster. Streaming via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room. 57 minutes. Unrated.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.