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Channel 4 attempts to sequence the DNA of famous historical figures

In a ground-breaking new Specialist Factual series beginning Wednesday 26th March on Channel 4, Mark Evans (Inside Nature’s Giants) sets out to track down the remains of some of history’s most famous figures. With eminent scientists applying the latest advances in DNA testing to the samples he obtains, he attempts to solve some of the mysteries that have persisted around them and raise awareness of what this fast-evolving science is now capable of.

Evans travels around the world to track down body parts and human relics claimed to belong to high profile figures including Adolf Hitler, Elvis Presley, Charles Darwin, John F Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Napoleon, Marlon Brando and King George III. The series follows him as he strives to establish the provenance of the artefacts and works with a team of leading scientists to extract their DNA and analyse their genome – the genetic blueprint of life.

The results from the DNA analysis provide some astounding discoveries about the historical figures including the revelations that Elvis Presley could have suffered from a heart muscle disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Channel 4 Head of Specialist Factual David Glover commissioned independent production company Double Act to make the 3 x 60 series. Glover has a long track record in making television about DNA science and morality – having previously made a series of documentaries examining the ethics with Jim Watson and Maurice Wilkins - two of the Nobel Prize winners who discovered the double helix structure of DNA.

He says: “The science around DNA testing is outstripping public awareness and understanding - even lawmakers are struggling to keep up with the pace of the rapid developments. This revelatory and thought-provoking series is designed to educate people about the power of DNA science and make them aware of the moral minefield that society is beginning to cross.

“Delving into the world of human relics trade we have been able to obtain body parts and attempt to profile these famous individuals from history in order to read their genetic code containing their physical, medical and behavioural traits. Only by showing just what science is capable of, and the potential pitfalls, can we highlight the far-reaching ethical, moral and legal implications this science could have for us all.

“It has been a fascinating process and the testing provided mixed results - some disproved the claimed provenance of the DNA, some of the specimens proved untestable whilst the more conclusive data brings the potential of DNA sequencing slap bang into people’s living rooms.“

The series has been three years in the making. Evans has travelled across the globe to employ a team of eminent scientists in the field of forensic genetics and molecular archaeology, biochemistry and molecular biology as well as forensic osteoarcheology to carry out the extensive testing on the high-profile figures to shed new light on their lives and deaths – using science to re-examine history. Though potentially illegal in the UK, this testing is permitted in a number of countries – including 45 states in the US.

Presenter Mark Evans says: “Some of the results are remarkable - not least those of the DNA we believe came from Elvis. Elvis and his doctor have both been blamed over the years for his premature death. It was thought his overeating or overdosing on drugs had killed him. Whilst those addictions would not have helped, this new evidence suggests Elvis may have had a flaw in his DNA and his early death was his genetic destiny.”

Double Act director, writer and producer Rob Davis says: “We are extremely proud of Dead Famous DNA, an ambitious three-year project which has involved us carefully negotiating our way across a moral minefield to use science to re-examine history. It has been a privilege to work so closely with some of the world’s leading experts in genetic research and we are thrilled that the series includes revelations which help shed new light on some of history’s unsolved mysteries.”

Elvis Presley
Evans travels to Memphis, Tenessee to track down remains of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll whose cause of death has always been surrounded in intrigue and controversy. Evans seeks to establish whether Elvis had an underlying and undiagnosed genetic condition that made him more likely to suffer a premature death.

For $2,000, Evans sources hair samples from Tom B Morgan Jnr, the friend of Elvis’ barber Homer Gilleland who captured hair falling from Elvis’ head in a towel placed on his shoulders.

Tested by:
Extraction - Professor Stefan Schuster, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Pennyslvania State University

Analysis - Dr Stephen Kingsmore, Director of the Centre for Paediatric Genomic Medicine, Children's Mercy Hospital, Kansas City

Result: Stored carefully away from sunlight in a jar – in both a bank vault and in a safe, the extensive collection of hair was extremely well-preserved. Professor Schuster says of it: “This genome of a dead person who has died a long time ago is the best genome we have ever done. In fact we can actually decipher nearly 90 per cent of his genome…this is the blueprint of genetic information of what makes a person.“

The results were sent to medical geneticists in Kansas who search for mutations known as ‘variants’ that cause disease. Their findings:

  • On Chromosome 1- they found a variant for migraines – that tallies with well-documented reports of Elvis suffering crippling headaches.
  • On Chromosome 17 they found a variant for glaucoma – at the end of his life, Elvis’ sight was so bad he needed to be guided off stage.
  • On Chromosome 19 they found a variant for obesity – Elvis is known to have battled with his weight.
  • Crucially on Chromosome 11 – they found a variant known to cause hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a heart muscle disease that usually occurs in men between the ages of 20 and 40 which causes the thickening of the heart and weakening of the heart muscle. Elvis displayed many of the symptoms of this disease towards the end of his life including – irregular heartbeat, fatigue, fainting, high blood pressure.

These remarkable results, from a DNA sample of apparently strong provenance appear to map all of Elvis’ well-documented health conditions and may well provide the answer to his mysterious premature death. A tragedy for which his private physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, has long shouldered the blame for in the eyes of many Elvis fans.

“This is definitely a smoking gun,” says Dr Stephen Kingsmore, Director of the Centre for Paediatric Genomic Medicine, Children's Mercy Hospital, Kansas City. “It looks pretty suspicious that this may indeed have contributed, potentially, to Elvis’ death. We could have advised him to modify his diet, and to see a cardiologist, and to have his blood pressure checked and, you know, he may have had a different life.”

‘Mad King George’

In episode one, with the aim to uncover the cause of the monarch’s infamous ‘madness,’ Evans obtains a sample claimed to be hair from King George III from celebrity hair collector John Reznikoff for $5,000. The hair was found on a dump in a hatbox, along with a letter of authentication from an America heiress.

Tested by:
Extraction - Professor Stefan Schuster, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Pennsylvania State University

Result: Testing established that the ‘hair’ sample was, in fact, a wig.

Dead Famous DNA begins on Wednesday 26th March at 9pm on Channel 4. Made by Double Act productions, it was produced, written and directed by Rob Davis. The executive producer was Alistair Cook.

Ends

Press Contact: Matthew Robinson - 0790 9684 746, matthew@mrtvpr.co.uk

Notes to Editors:
About Double Act

Critically acclaimed, television production company Double Act, specialises in producing high profile documentaries and prime-time factual television series for major international broadcasters. In addition to making waves in the television world with their fearless productions, Double Act has earned a reputation for creating films with visual flair, humour and compelling narratives. Founded by directors Alastair Cook and Rob Davis, their work has taken them to all corners of the globe, tackling a diverse range of exciting and edgy subjects – from the dangerous world of extreme gem hunting (Game of Stones - DISCOVERY) to death defying BASE jumpers (The Men Who Jump Off Buildings- C4) to the dark and disturbing world of Fat Girls and Feeders (C4) and now into ground-breaking and controversial cutting-edge science (Dead Famous DNA – C4). They’ve also devised successful global television formats, including adventure series LOST, hailed as seminal by television critics and industry professionals.

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