The Great Science Publishing Scandal

radioBroadcaster: Radio 4

Year: 2019

Genre: Investigation, documentary

Duration: 28 minutes


This is a fascinating overview of the complexities of scientific publication. It will serve up few surprises for those who have had experience of the vagaries of how and where to publish their work, but will offer valuable insights for anyone wondering why they cannot access research they would like to read without paying a hefty fee (and despite the fact the work described was often funded by the public). The excluded readers might include members of the public seeking to find out about latest potential cures for an illness they experience, or students writing a dissertation.

In terms of educational uses, I can certainly see listening to this episode as a worthwhile half hour of “guided independent study” before a session on publication, peer review and plagiarism.

See also BBC page for this programme at





Drugs for rare diseases (Newsnight)

kuvan1Broadcaster: BBC2

Year: 2019

Genre: Current Affairs package, interview

Duration: 9 minutes


A really interesting 9 minute clip from the BBC’s Newsnight current affairs series, of potential interest for those studying biochemistry, or curious about the driving forces in pharmaceutical development and marketing.

Phenylketonuria (PKU) is described as a “rare disease”, but it may be familiar to many students of biology since it is a classic “inborn error of metabolism” and commonly features in introductory genetics or biochemistry modules. sufferers typically have a mutation in the PAH gene, encoding the enzyme phenylalanine hydroxylase. As a consequence they fail to metabolise the amino acid phenylalanine properly. Accumulation of the compounds can have a range of symptoms, including brain damage.

In many countries PKU is picked up shortly after birth via the newborn screening heal-prick test. Affected individuals are then placed on an extremely restricted diet to expose them to as little phenylalanine as possible. Continue reading

Raw Milk (BBC Breakfast)

Raw milk 2Broadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2019

Genre: Magazine, interview

Duration: 6 mins 30 secs


There has been a rise in the popularity of unpasteurised “Raw milk” in the UK, with over 3 million litres sold directly to the public in 2018. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has initiated a consultation into improving the legislation relating to this product. Around 180 farms are now producing Raw Milk, but there have been a number of hospitalisations resulting from infections linked to the product, which is considered “risky”.

The clip has potential use in modules on microbiology or food biology. For example, Raw Milk is mentioned in both the first year microbiology and a third year Microbial Biotechnology module at Leicester.


HPV vaccine success (BBC News at 6)

HPV3Broadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2019

Genre: News package

Duration: 2 mins


A two minute news report (4th April 2019) prompted by publication of a study reporting reduced occurrence of cancerous symptoms in cervical smears taken from 20 year old women compared vaccinated against HPV as 12 or 13 year olds, compared against unvaccinated women. The clip includes an interview with a woman who had a hysterectomy in her early thirties after diagnosis of cervical cancer.

See also this clip from BBC Breakfast the same day.


Impact of HPV Vaccine (BBC Breakfast)

HPV2Broadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2019

Genre: Magazine piece, interview

Duration: 4 mins


An interview was conducted jointly with Sophia Lowes from Cancer Research UK in the Salford studio, and GP Philippa Kaye (via link from London) to discuss a new paper in the British Medical Journal. See also this website for more details on the story. The resarch, a retrospective population study, compared rates of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) in 20 year old women who had been vaccinated aged 12-13 and those who had not.  The results give strong support to the vaccination programme.

In this clip (4 mins, broadcast 4th April 2019), Health Information Officer Lowes and GP Kaye discuss the importance of the research in justifying vaccination of girls before they become sexually active.

See also this clip from the 6 O’Clock News on the same day.

Honey as a source of new antibiotics (BBC Breakfast)

honey1Broadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2019

Genre: Magazine piece, interview

Duration: 5 mins


A short segment from BBC Breakfast (broadcast 3rd April 2019) about antibiotic stewardship. Specifically, a VT package picks up on research being led by Engineer Dr Sophie Cox at the University of Birmingham (UK) about their work on honey as a potential source of novel antimicrobial compounds (see this link for Birmingham’s press release). This study is motivated by the natural ability of beehives to resist bacterial infestation, and the long history of honey as a folk medicine.

In the second half of the clip, a studio interview is conducted with Peter Gibson (Antibiotics Research, UK) about the need for new antibiotics, and the steps we can all  make towards reducing the spread of resistance (e.g. not menacing doctors to provide them unnecessarily, and practicing good hand hygiene when visiting hospitals).

Three Identical Strangers

TIT1Broadcaster: Channel 4

Year: 2019 (original documentary 2018)

Genre: Documentary, Biography

Duration: 1 hr 55 mins


[spoiler alert: post contains details of important plot twists] At first pass, the amazing story of triplets Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman has the makings of a fairy tale. Adopted separately as infants, the three men were reunited aged 19 after a series of amazing coincidences. This 2018 documentary begins by recounting the events that led up to their meeting and their whirlwind entry into the world of celebrity and chat show appearances.

However fairy tales can have a dark side, and that is certainly true in this case. A business venture started jointly by the brothers heightens tension between them and exacerbates underlying mental well-being issues. These contributed to Eddy Galland taking his own life. Continue reading

Microbiological safety (Outbreak)

outbreak3Broadcaster: Channel 5

Year: 2015 (original film 1995)

Genre: Movie, Fiction

Duration: 3 minutes


Undergraduate modules on microbiology often include an introduction to the containment levels for handling increasingly dangerous pathogens. This short clip (3 minutes) from the start of the film Outbreak gives a reasonably accurate representation of the protection required in each of the four levels (though you do wonder about the person in containment level 3 who removes her respirator BEFORE she leaves the high risk area (at 1:44)!

It is also worth noting that strategies of containment differ somewhat from the USA (as pictured) where greater emphasis is put on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), whereas in the UK security is often based on more stringent engineering (with the argument that this better protects ALL of us, not just the worker directly involved).

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Dr Chris Bruce for alerting me to this clip.

Liquid biopsy blood test for cancer

biopsy2Broadcaster: Sky News

Year: 2018

Genre: News Package

Duration: 3 mins


A Sky News report discusses new research conducted in Cleveland, Ohio which promises to offer a simple blood test offering diagnosis of a variety of cancers much earlier than currently possible. The liquid biopsy looks at DNA circulating in the blood. At present the research is encouraging proof-of-principle rather than being appropriate for the clinic – the accuracy of the test is not sufficiently reliable to be used in diagnosis without the risk of false positives or negatives.

That stated, however, the new test did seem most accurate for predicting pancreatic and ovarian cancers which are currently amongst those that are the hardest to diagnose sufficiently early to allow for effective treatment to be initiated.

At present, the research being reported was shared as a conference presentation rather than as a peer-reviewed paper. Having said that, however, there is already much excitement about the use of liquid biopsies to spot “biomarkers” for cancer. See this link for a 2013 review article Liquid biopsy: monitoring cancer-genetics in the blood .

The Sky News clip includes interviews with Annie Jones whose mum died from pancreatic cancer, and Justine Alford from Cancer Research UK. It could be used in teaching to illustrate the growing importance of genomic approaches to cancer diagnosis and treatment.

This link offers further coverage of the Cleveland research from The Scientist (which itself has further links to coverage in UK newspapers).


Kuvan approved for PKU

kuvanBroadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2017

Genre: News package

Duration: 2 minutes 33 seconds


This is a brief (two and a half minute) news piece about a patient “S” , who suffers from Phenylketonuria (PKU) and the successful application by his parents for treatment using the drug Kuvan.

PKU is a well-characterised autosomal recessive inborn error of metabolism in which the body cannot appropriately process the amino acid phenylalanine (Phe) dues to mutation in the gene for the enzyme Phenylalanine hydroxylase (PAH), whose role is to convert phenylalanine to tyrosine. Because the genetic basis of PKU is well characterised, it features regularly in introductory courses on biochemistry and/or genetics.

Kuvan, also known as sapropterin, is a pharmaceutical version of tetrahydrobiopterin or BH4, which is an essential cofactor for PAH. Taking Kuvan is essentially increasing the concentration of BH4 in the body and thus promoting the activity of naturally occurring PAH to process more Phe to Try. Since the action of PAH is the rate-limiting step in the degradation of excess phenylalanine, increasing this reaction makes a significant contribution to lowering the concentration of Phe. However, this is not a complete solution, and patients with PKU are sometimes recommended to have a low phenylalanine diet, even if they are on the drug.

This clip could be used in a module teaching about the genetics and biochemistry of PKU. It is also an example of healthcare rationing, the complexities of deciding which medicines should be provided by the NHS. Decisions on the cost effectiveness of drugs is often made by the NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (the name evolved, the acronym didn’t!) On this occasion, however, the decision was made by the High Court. Kuvan cost £100 per day, and the hospital treating S had argued it was not warranted on grounds of clinical efficacy. The high court disagreed, stating that the effectiveness of the drug was well established (eg. in this 2007 article from The Lancet).

Background on PKU can be found via this link (same article as liked above)

Some background to the case of S can be found via this link.