Is burnt toast *really* a cancer threat? (News)

toastNew “go for gold” advice from the Food Standards Agency is warning people not to overcook foods such as roast potatoes, chips and toast, as it increases their risk of cancer. The story was widely reported in the press on 23rd January 2017 (e.g. Browned toast and potatoes are ‘potential cancer risk’, say food scientists).

Useful broadcast media coverage includes:

BBC News at One: Is burnt toast a cancer risk?
(2 mins 40)

Channel 4 News: Feeling the burn URL:
(3 mins)

Today (BBC Radio 4): Can overdone toast be a cancer risk?
(4 mins 30)

Concern focuses on acrylamide, a chemical that is naturally produced when starchy foods (particularly those rich the amino acid asparagine, such as potatoes and cereals) are cooked at high temperatures (see Mottram et al and Stadler et al for underlying science, which actually dates from 2002). Continue reading

Life Story: Solving the structure of DNA


Watson and Crick discuss whether to tell Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin about their research

Broadcaster: BBC4

Year: 2004
(originally broadcast 1987 on BBC2)

Genre: Dramatisation

Length: 01:46:24

In the late 1980s, Horizon, the BBC’s flagship science series, took the unusual step of producing a feature length retelling of the events of 1951-52 leading to James Watson and Francis Crick solving the structure of DNA.

Inspired by Watson’s memoir The Double Helix, and with a screenplay by  William Nicholson (who later went on to write the script for Gladiator), the production starred Jeff Goldblum as Watson, Tim Pigott-Smith as Crick and Juliet Stevenson as Rosalind Franklin.

A colleague recommends that students watch this on their own as a “flipped teaching” exercise prior to more academic sessions on DNA structure.

The film is known in the USA as “The race for the double helix” and is listed on IMDB under that name. The most recent transmission of this programme pre-dates Box of Broadcasts, and this copy is uploaded from a VHS copy. In consequence, the quality is sub-optimal, but clear enough.

Tackling tuberculosis (Countryfile)

cowtbBroadcaster: BBC1
Year: 2016
Genre: Magazine

URLs: (full episode)
Clip 1 (6:43):
Clip2 (6:16):

The BBC’s rural affairs programme Countryfile (first broadcast on 9th October 2016) looked at ongoing issues with TB infection cattle populations. The topic was covered in two sections. The first focuses on the current tests for TB infection. The second looks more closely at the science being used to develop new tests and better vaccines against TB. Continue reading

Performance enhancing drugs: the dark side of doping


Sprinter Tim Montgomery was the 100 metre world record holder, but was later caught using performance-enhancing drugs and was banned

Broadcaster: Al Jazeera

Year: 2015

Genre: Documentary


Review by Ella Yabsley

In this Al Jazeera Investigates documentary, former UK hurdler Liam Collins embarks on an undercover investigation seeking to expose ‘the dark side’ of professional sports; blood doping and the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) by professional athletes. This 16-minute clip splices together key sections of the documentary (The full programme can be seen on YouTube as well as on Box of Broadcasts).

I can take a guy with average genetics and I can make him a world champion. I can with drugs. Oh absolutely.

The documentary stirred controversy, primarily for featuring accusations regarding several NFL footballers,  notably Peyton Manning, who went on to steer his Denver Broncos team to success at Superbowl 50 before announcing his retirement. More importantly, the documentary highlights loopholes in the drug testing regimes of several popular sports. Athletes play a ‘cat and mouse game’ with the testing system; timely drug administration combined with an awareness of testing procedures results in athletes coming up negative in tests. Continue reading

Immunotherapy for Type I Diabetes (News)

peakman1Broadcaster: BBC1
Year: 2016
Genre: News

In this three minute clip, Fergus Walsh reports on a trial being conducted at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust (London). The research, led by Prof Mark Peakman, is using a combination of protein fragments (MultiPepT1De) to try and trigger a “protective” immune response, rather than the inappropriate antibody production against islet cells that underlies Type 1 diabetes.

This link includes a video by Prof Peakman introducing the biochemistry of Type I diabetes and the basis of their research (5 mins). See also this article by Peakman on the principles behind the new approach.

The same news item is currently also available on the BBC news website.

COPD & smoking (Sunrise)

add caption

COPD is linked to smoking

Broadcaster: Sky News

Year: 2015

Genre: News


Review by Ella Yabsley

The 2.5 minute clip from Sky News breakfast programme Sunrise is a good scene-setter, providing examples of how chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects the physical stamina of individuals. Broadcast at the end of December, it is timed to influence people considering giving up smoking as a new year’s resolution. The clip includes coverage of Olympic athlete Iwan Thomas climbing the stairs whilst wearing a restrictive mask that mimics the effects of COPD.

Each year, around 25,000 people in the UK die from COPD. COPD is an umbrella term for emphysema, chronic bronchitis and other chronic obstructive airways diseases that affect the respiratory system (principally, the lungs). The report highlights smoking as a major risk factor for COPD development; increases in smoking directly correlates with more severe COPD symptoms. In addition to 25,000 people per annum dying from COPD, it is estimated that a further 3 million people in the UK are living with the condition.

“To start with it’s often just a smoker’s cough with some phlegm at the back of the throat. People write it off and say “oh, that’s normal”; but it inexorably goes downhill so that they get so bad that they’re short of breath all the time” – Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England

For an up to date review on early COPD and risk factors please see this article published by The Lancet.

Ablation, Ibrutinib & PSA testing (Curing Cancer)

Add some description here

In a clinical setting; MRI Imaging is routinely used to identify tumour locations in preparation for treatments like microwave ablation (MWA) or high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU)

Broadcaster: Channel 4

Year: 2014

Genre: Documentary


Review by Ella Yabsley

The Curing Cancer documentary outlines in simple terms how cancer occurs. I do not recommend watching the entire hour-long episode from the Cutting Edge series as it only briefly covers certain areas and contains anecdotal sections which are irrelevant for educational purposes. This 14 minute clip (spliced together from shorter segments in the programme) could serve as a brief introduction to cancer cell biology.

If you already have a more advanced knowledge of cancer biology then I recommend skipping to the four specific cases below (rather than watching the longer clip). Each case describes and demonstrates a different cancer treatment in action; Ibrutinib, high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU)  and microwave ablation (MWA). Case 2 describes the diagnosis techniques prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing and biopsy extraction.

Watching the cases below could be valuable if you are taking a cancer biology module and want to demonstrate knowledge of emerging therapies. Additionally, please take a look at this post which highlights a recent BBC News item on immunotherapy techniques used for treating melanoma (skin cancer).

Continue reading

Am I having a heart attack? (News)

troponin concentration in the blood can give an indication of whether someone is having a genuine heart attack

troponin concentration in the blood can give an indication of whether someone is having a genuine heart attack

Broadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2015

Genre: News


A million people a year visit Accident and Emergency departments in the UK with concerns that they are having a heart attack. A simple blood test monitoring the levels of troponin has been available for a while, but a paper published in leading medical journal the Lancet (open access) described a quicker procedure with greater sensitivity to low concentrations of the protein. This should make it easier to confirm if someone has genuine damage to their heart or is simply experiencing chest pain.

This 2-minute BBC News clip summarises the story. It could be used in a lecture on muscle activity, e.g. to consider why troponin is released into the blood.

Alternative coverage of the same story includes a 4 minute section from BBC Breakfast or  3 minutes from Channel 5 News.

See also:
Test rules out heart attacks in two-thirds suffering chest pains (Guardian)
Heart attack test ‘cuts hospital stays’ (BBC)
Plus an earlier article from NICE about various troponin-based assays.



DNP: A mitochondrial “uncoupler”

Ella Parry died after buying 2,4-DNP on the internet

Broadcaster: ITV 1

Year: 2015

Genre: News, Factual


This 5 minute piece from the ITV news describes the tragic death of a student. Eloise Parry took slimming pills she had bought on the internet. Unfortunately the tablets in question contained 2,4-dinitrophenol (sometimes called “DNP”). DNP is a mitochondrial uncoupler; it is capable of inhibiting mitochondrial ATP synthesis without inhibiting any specific factor within the electron transport chain (ETC). It appear to do so by binding protons directly and, due to it being lipid soluble, simply carries them across the membrane, causing collapse of the proton motive force.

DNP was investigated as a slimming pill in the 1930s, but was banned for human consumption for exactly the reasons highlighted by this tragedy. Sadly Eloise’s death is not an isolated event; there have been previous UK deaths linked to DNP in the recent past (see this NHS Choices article for details).

As well as serving as a warning to students who might be tempted to try these pills, this incident might also fit illustrate the importance of maintaining the PMF in the context of a biochemistry lecture on mitochondria and the ETC. For more details see these pages at Rice University on mitochondrial poisons and this Wikipedia entry.

There is also a two minute BBC News version of this story (this link) and a second, longer interview with Eloise’s mum on the Victoria Derbyshire show via this link.

The story also received further coverage at the time of the inquest into Eloise’s death (see this clip)

Life, Energy and Thermal vents (Start the Week)

radioBroadcaster: BBC Radio 4

Year: 2015

Genre: Radio, Discussion


This episode of the regular Radio 4 programme Start the Week (45 mins) has an unusually biological focus. The studio guests are all authors of books or poems about biological matters.

  • Nick Lane (UCL) is author of several popular science books, including Life Ascending and the new The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is? Amongst other things, he discusses the importance of singular event – eukaryotic cell engulfing bacteria cell that became mitochondria – in the development of complex life.
  • Helen Scales has a particular interest in molluscs. She discusses their versatility and offers insights into organisms that live on hydrothermal vents. Her second book Spirals in Time (about shells) is published shortly.
  • Luke Rendell (St Andrews) is author of The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. He discusses the social life of ocean going mammals.
  • Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has had a poem about seahorses commissioned by London Zoo. He notes that they are often killed accidentally, but are also sought after by practitioners of alternative medicines. They also, it is noted, have the “bad luck of looking beautiful when dead”.

The programme finishes with an interesting brief discussion on the importance of language use in science, particularly the attractions and danger of metaphor. Metaphor can bring to life notions that it is hard for people to follow (Lane notes that most biochemistry, for example, is too small to see). and science. Motion acknowledges the inherent tension in marrying the language of hard science with lyric poetry, which Shelley had observed is “vitally metaphoric”. Even the fact that we term a group of whales a “school” is value-laden. The suggestion is made that there is a “sweet spot” in the appropriate use of metaphor such that it adds value without becoming a limit to enquiry.

This is not a programme that you would want to sit a class down to listen to together, but it would be a valuable 45 minutes for A level or undergraduate students interested in science communication.