Film Review: “X-Men: First Class”

reviewed by Anthony Au

x-men1In “X-Men: First Class” film, the general premise has been sufficiently adapted from its comic book series. X-Men film series have been created based on a team of “genetically-enhanced” humans, who carry mutations that confer them with special abilities. Particularly, this movie focuses on the relationship between Charles Xavier, Erik Lensherr and the origin of the “X-Men”.

This story began with the evil Dr. Klaus Schmidt’s (later known as Sebastian Shaw) encounter with young Erik Lensherr who is capable of bending metal gate using psycho-telekinetic shockwave. Meanwhile, young Charles Xavier, a mutant with telephatic capability was very excited when he met a young blue shape-shifting human called Raven, realising that he is not the only human with special capabilities. Eighteen years later, Xavier (later known as Professor X) obtained his DPhil from University of Oxford with a thesis on “Mutation”. Due to his renowned scientific work on mutations, the CIA requested his help to track down the evil Sebastian Shaw. In one of the discussions with CIA, Charles Xavier mentioned that auburn or red hair as “a mutation, a very groovy mutation.”[see information box]

Information Box

    In reality, our human red hair phenotype [1] is encoded by recessive allele [2] of melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) gene [3].This gene provides instructions for making a MC1R protein which produces a pigment called melanin that gives skin, hair, and eyes colour. Two forms of melanin help to determine a person’s hair and skin colour: i) eumelanin contributes to brown or black hair and dark skin; ii) pheomelanin tend to confer red or blond hair and light-colored skin. Certain genetic variations in MC1R gene reduce the ability of MC1R protein to stimulate eumelanin production rather than pheomelanin, resulting in red hair phenotype. However, the genetics for black hair has yet to be confirmed, and it is thought that at least two pairs of genes are representing human hair colour.

The paths of Charles and Erik later coincide and they were embroiled in a series of battle and clashes of ideology in the battle between mutant with special capabilities and normal humans. During his stint with the CIA, Charles was introduced to a mutant scientist, Dr. Hank McCoy. Dr. McCoy, in attempt to overcome the embarrassment of his prehensile feet, tried to cure his mutant cells using cells from the blue-shapeshifter, Raven. Unfortunately, his experiment failed and transformed him into a blue leonine beast. This fictional approach is actually similar to what scientists are trying to do in gene therapy, which involves the insertion of new functional genes into cells and tissues of the patients in order to treat a disease.  However, this technology is still under development and has evolved since the first clinical trial in 1990. In the first clinical trial, scientists attempted to reintroduced adenosine deaminase gene by retroviral vector into the T cells of adenosine deaminase deficiency (also known as ADA-SCID) patients [4]. In this rare disease,  patients lack the enzyme adenosine deaminase, which affects the function of cells in the body, especially T cells and B cells.

The casts of X-Men: First Class. Photo by PatLoika/Flickr.

This film brings up the notion that X-Men are not alone – as a matter of fact, we are all mutants indeed. A gene mutation is a permanent change to the DNA sequence, with or without effects on the functioning gene. Scientists discovered that humans carry various types of germline [5], de novo [6] and somatic mutations [7]. Small alterations in the DNA sequences of human genome are the drivers of variation between people such as skin colour, eye colour, hair colour, and blood type. Most of these genetic variations do not pose negative effects on a person’s health, while some may influence the risk of developing certain disorders (cystic fibrosis, Huntington disease and certain types of cancer).

This fictional superhero film has fascinated and attracted the audiences’ attention with not only visual stimulation, but also introduced them the idea of genetic mutations in our human life. However, it is worth pointing out that the effects of mutation were over-exaggerated in this superhero franchise and are very unlikely to occur in reality.  Finally, to quote Professor X:

“Mutation took us from single cells organisms to being the dominant form of reproductive life on this planet. Infinite forms of variation with each generation, all through mutation.”

Indeed, mutations are the reasons why we humans are who we are today.

Footnotes

[1] Phenotype is the observable characteristics (hair colour, skin colour) of an individual which controlled by genes.

[2] Recessive allele is an allele that masked in the phenotype by the presence of a dominant allele. Allele is the alternate forms or varieties of a gene.

[3] Flanagan N, Healy E, Ray A, et al. Pleiotropic effects of the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) gene on human pigmentation. Hum Mol Genet. 2000, 9(17):2531-2537

[4] Blaese RM, Culver KW, Miller AD, et al. T lymphocyte-directed gene therapy for ADA- SCID: initial trial results after 4 years. Science. 1995, 270(5235):475-80.

[5] Mutations that are passed from parent to child, which are present throughout individuals’ life. Also known as hereditary mutations.

[6] Mutations that occur only in an ovum or sperm, or occur after fertilisation.

[7] Mutations that sometimes occur in any individual cell due to environmental factors such as exposure to ionising radiation, ultraviolet from sun or errors in DNA replication during cell division.

About the Author

Anthony Au is a postgraduate candidate from Human Genome Centre, School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia. He can be contacted at auzlanthony[at]gmail.com. Find out more about Anthony by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/anthonyau/.

 

 

 



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