In June 2016, BBC current affairs programme Panorama conducted a whistle-stop tour around potential applications of CRISPR, the emerging gene editing technology.
In Medicine’s Big Breakthrough… Editing Your Genes (30 mins), Fergus Walsh talks to a number of key players in the field. These include Jennifer Doudna, credited as one of the co-creators of CRISPR as an editing took, George Church who is looking to humanise pig organs to reduce the likelihood of rejection, and Fyodor Urnov (from Sangamo Biosciences) who is trying to use the technology to tackle diseases such as AIDS and haemophilia. Alison van Eenennaam discusses genetic approaches to making horn-less cattle (which, she argues, is more humane than the current methods for removing existing horns). Walsh also visits biohacking entrepreneur Josiah Zayner, and Kathy Niakan from the Crick Institute who has the UK’s first licence to use CRISPR with human embryos.
The video is good at raising ethical as well as scientific questions. I can see this episode either serving as a very nice introduction to the topic, which students could be asked to watch before a face-to-face teaching session, or alternatively one or more of the vignettes could be used as illustrative clip(s) within a lecture.
A transcript of the programme is available via this link.
There are a several introductory videos about CRISPR on YouTube. These include one produced by The Royal Society, available via this link. It starts from quite a low level, and so is probably most applicable for a school audience. A second, longer, video produced by Kurzgesagt (German for “in a nutshell”) is available via this link.
Broadcaster: BBC 1
Full original programme URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/0B9E458F?bcast=121120092
Review by June Adams
The current worldwide demand for meat is huge, and growing faster than production rates can keep up with. How will we stop our commercial supply of meat from running out?
One way that farmers have tried to tackle the beef shortage is by producing cows that give more meat. Belgian blues are a type of cow that has been specially bred to have 20% more muscle than the average cow, equating to 900 more quarter pounders. They can be reared to weigh up to one tonne! However, the extreme looking breed is controversial and difficult to farm. Belgian blue cows are unable to give birth naturally, and the calves often suffer from joint and heart problems. Is there a way to increase meat production without overburdening livestock?
In this five minute clip from the series Tomorrow’s Food, Professor Mark Post has managed to grow a burger in a lab by extracting stem cells from a tiny piece of meat, which then multiplied for 8 weeks in an incubator to make new muscle tissue. It takes 30 billion cells to make a single burger. The process is faster and may require less energy than rearing a whole cow, but it produces a very small amount of meat that costs a lot; a lab-grown burger costs over $200,000. In order to reduce costs to make the process viable on the market, production would need to be scaled up drastically – Olympic swimming pool sized incubation tanks! With some work, hopefully lab-grown burgers will become cheap enough to be sold commercially in less than 10 years.
World’s first lab-grown burger is eaten in London (5th August 2013) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23576143
Front row, left to right: Keith Fox, Jackie Leach Scully, Tony Juniper, David King, Trevor Stammers, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Jonathan Montgomery, Silvia Camporesi, Virginia Bolton, Ruth Stirton and David Wood. Steve Storey is on the extreme right-hand side of the second row.
Genre: Debate, Factual
On 11th June 2017, the final episode of the BBC’s ethical debate series The Big Questions was given over to a full hour’s discussion on the theme “Is interfering with genes ethical?”
As readers may know, this is an important and timely discussion. The emergence of CRISPR gene editing technology over the past three years has, for the first time, made it feasible to alter genes in situ and raises the potential/spectre (delete as applicable) of genuinely designer babies.
An impressive cast of bioethicists had been assembled to lead the debate (see caption of photo, above). A number of interesting and relevant points were raised. Despite the longer allocation of time, however, there was still a frustrating lack of depth on the topic. The focus was allowed to drift far too wide, embracing cryogenic preservation at one end of the spectrum and GM crops at the other. A moving account of the treatment of Steven Storey with his own stem cells was also not really on topic.
A full transcript of the episode is available via this link
For a list of older episodes of The Big Questions on bioethical themes see this link at our sister site Bioethicsbytes.
Broadcaster: Channel 4
Length: 3:16 mins
When an infant has an illness that will, in all probabilities, prove fatal their parents face an agonising choice. Do you follow all possible interventions, or do you reach a point where you recognise that it is in the best interests of the child to withdraw treatment?
This dilemma is brought into stark relief by Charlie Gard who, at the time of writing, is the subject of a High Court case at the Royal Courts of Justice. There are several aspects that make this case particularly tricky, and particularly interesting from a medical ethics standpoint.
Charlie was born in August 2016 with a rare mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome. He is deaf and blind, it is tricky to know how much pain he is aware of at present. Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital want to move to a regime of palliative care only. A crowdfunding project has raised over a million pounds parents and his parents want to take Charlie to the USA where a doctor is willing to enrol him on a trial of nucleoside bypass therapy, an experimental treatment which has an extremely low probability of alleviating some of his symptoms. He will almost certainly still die.
The case shines a spotlight on different medical culture in the UK and the USA. In the UK doctors tend to take a more cautious approach whereas doctors in America are more willing to try experimental procedures if the patient (or in this case, their parents) want to try and have the money to do so.
For further coverage of the case see: The Guardian and ITV News and a later report from the BBC.
Review by June Adams
In 2011, comedy writer Paul Mayhew-Archer (whose work includes The Vicar of Dibley) became one of about 127,000 people in the UK diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year. At that time, he was told to expect “five good years”. Since then laughter, chocolate, medication and exercise classes run for Parkinson’s patients by the English National Ballet have helped keep his spirits up and his symptoms relatively in check. However with those five good years now passed, Paul begins to ask what the coming years may hold for him and his condition.
As you can imagine from the title, this is not a serious scientific documentary – but there are short sections that might prove useful to demonstrate different forms of intervention being used to understand more about Parkinson’s, to treat the symptoms and/or to find a potential cure. With the help of various Departments of Oxford University, Paul investigates:
- Tests for Parkinson’s, including development of a phone app that help doctors with an early diagnosis of the disease (this clip, 1.47 mins)
- Deep brain stimulation for controlling tremors (this clip, 3.30 mins), and
- News of a possible cure involving stem cells (this clip, 1.54 mins).
Along the way, Paul meets other people with Parkinson’s and discovers how everyone’s experience of the disease is different; each has a unique combination of symptoms, some of which are much more troubling than others. As he summarises in closing:
“A philosopher once said, I think it was Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” And Parkinson’s is like a particularly rubbish sort of box of chocolates. Every symptom, every chocolate is particularly disgusting. But some are more disgusting than others. And let’s hope, as I come to the end of my five good years, that I won’t end up with the orange cream.”
Broadcaster: NHK World
(originally broadcast Aug 2015)
Review by June Adams
This short clip from the English-speaking Japanese channel announces the introduction of a regulatory body for genetic testing in Japan. Establishment of The Council for Protection of Individual Genetic Information (CPIGI) was prompted by a number of concerns. For example, companies offering tests Direct-to Consumer (DTC) genetic testing have not necessarily given sufficient diligence to the security of private genetic information, or to the interpretation of the results. This is especially true for diseases that result from the interaction of multiple gene products as well as the influence of environment on expression of those genes (so called GxE interactions). The clips cites diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease as examples where a correlation with a particular allele at a particular gene may be hard to quantify.
The CPIGI, which launched in Oct 2015 (after the initial broadcast of this episode) is an umbrella group for 25 companies and offers a checklist of over 200 items intended to enhance trust between genetic test providers and clients. This includes the importance of genetic counselling. The launch of CPIGI has been controversial (e.g. see here), especially regarding the lack of consultation.
See this post for details of clips from Newsnight and BBC Breakfast in 2014, regarding the UK launch of DTC genetic service 23andMe.
Broadcaster: BBC Radio 4
Genre: Panel discussion, Fire-side chat
In this special episode of the BBC radio programme All in the mind (28 mins), host Claudia Hammond discusses the basis of memory formation with three leading researchers Tim Bliss, Graham Collingridge and Richard Morris who have been major players in developing our understanding of memory.
Tim Bliss draws attention to Donald Hebb’s pivotal book The Organization of Behavior and the aphorism “Cells that fire together, wire together”. Graham Collingridge then introduces the notion of long-term potentiation (LTP) as the molecular basis of memory, and particularly the role played by NMDA receptors in learning and AMPA receptors in memory. Errors in the functioning of any of hundreds of proteins can have detrimental impact on memory. Under-activation of LTP can be a contributory factor to schizophrenia. Continue reading
Sprinter Tim Montgomery was the 100 metre world record holder, but was later caught using performance-enhancing drugs and was banned
Broadcaster: Al Jazeera
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
Increasing global population and food demands drive the discovery for new food sources and imminent dietary change
Broadcaster: BBC TWO
Review by Ella Yabsley
This 4.5-minute clip from BBC Two’s Food & Drink could serve as a useful discussion-starter when considering the ethics of global meat consumption. The clip begins with the introduction of a new type of food source, cultured beef or in vitro meat (IVM). A team from Maastricht University (Holland) claim that IVM was produced for numerous reasons: IVM is more sustainable compared to traditional animal farming practices; it could solve the current (and future) food crisis; and it could also help to combat climate change. Regardless of your ethical standpoint, this clip highlights some of the ethical, economic and health-related tensions that the ‘Western World’ is facing with regards to animal agriculture. Continue reading
COPD is linked to smoking
Broadcaster: Sky 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.