Broadcaster: Radio 4
Genre: Conversation about science and working as a scientist
Duration: 28 minutes
and on iPlayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09rxr3t
The Life Scientific is a regular series on Radio 4, in which Physicist Jim Al-Khalili (and regular media contributor) talks to other leading scientists about their work. It is always an interesting listen because it peels away the false impression that science is a coldly calculated process to reveal some of the human experience involved in conducting research.
In February 2018, Prof Al-Khalili spoke with clinical geneticist Sir John Burn about his life and work. Prof Burn manages to juggle a number of roles; he is Professor of Clinical Genetics at Newcastle University, where he combines basic science research at the Life Science Centre, a ground-breaking research institute he co-founded, with clinical work at Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. He is also the Genetics Lead for the UK National Institute of Health Research and chairs spin-out company QuantuMDx, which is developing bedside DNA testing kits that could offer diagnosis in a matter of minutes.
There were many aspects of this episode that make listening to it half an hour well spent for any student of molecular bioscience. In particular, the programme gives a beautiful insight into the impact that genetics and DNA sequencing is playing in contemporary medicine (and the bigger role yet to come). Burn has been a pioneer of genetic testing in medicine and an enthusiast for benefits of routine genomic testing to facilitate personalised medicine (see, for example, his 2013 British Medical Journal article Should we sequence everyone’s genome? Yes). Continue reading
New “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: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/clip/87907
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
Genre: Humour, Magazine
Review by June Adams and Eunice Muruako
Dr Xand van Tulleken hosts this satirical show (30 mins) taking a look back at some health news from 2016. He elaborates on potentially misleading news headlines and explains the research behind them. Tulleken is keen to push the message that the unsubstantiated claims of pseudo-science detract from the credibility of real science that could actually help people. The humorously presented topics range from scaremongering health claims and celebrity endorsed miracle cures, to squat toilets and cigarette packaging; he even uses cheese as a visual aid to illustrate the factors behind the junior doctors’ strikes.
Broadcaster: BBC One
Review by Ella Yabsley
A study published on the Lancet Oncology website in January 2016 reported that proton beam therapy was as effective as traditional photon radiotherapy for the treatment of paediatric medulloblastoma (a childhood brain cancer). The paper also suggests proton radiotherapy reduces toxicity towards normal tissues (compared to photon radiotherapy) and could improve long-term health outcomes for children with malignant brain cancer. At the present time, the NHS are paying for eligible patients to receive proton treatment abroad. From 2019, two new NHS proton beam therapy facilities will be opened in London and Manchester (more by private institutions).
This video file (11 mins), a combination of several shorter pieces from Breakfast News, gives background to the development including an interview with a paediatric oncologist who explains what the study does, and does not, show. It is a (relatively) large study but the observations appear not to be a surprise to those working in the field; the interest may be linked to the controversy surrounding the Ashya King case. Continue reading
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
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).
The programme includes an engaging animated history of our understanding of inheritance
Broadcaster: BBC 2
Genre: Magazine show
Review by Amy Evans
In 2012 well-known comedian (and theoretical physics graduate) Dara Ó Briain launched his eponymous Science Club. This first episode of season 1 focuses on reproduction and inheritance, including the importance of bicycles to human development. Although the show’s approach is light-hearted and humorous, there is actually a lot of information given about genetics and key speakers, such as leading geneticist Steve Jones, are involved so that the information given is up to date (at the time of showing). The show is aimed at viewers who have a relatively basic initial knowledge, but elements of it might be good to watch as a re-cap when starting new modules.
A brief history of genetics (2:46, starting at 02:23, see this clip) a nice animation, summarising our understanding of inheritance from Aristotle via van Leeuwenhoek, Bakewell, Mendel and Morgan and ending with elucidation of the double helix by Watson and Crick.
Does sex work? An interview with Professor Steve Jones. Ó Briain and Jones discuss the inefficiencies of sexual reproduction, especially from the female perspective. Jones argues that invention of the bicycle is the most important step in human evolution, because it allowed intermingling of the gene pools with residents of the next village. Now, across the world, we are becoming much less isolated genetically. After a consideration of the history of the bicycle, they return to discussing the importance of genetic diversity. Generally speaking the marital distance, that is the geographical distance between the birthplace of partners relative to the distance between the birthplaces of their respective parents, gets greater generation by generation. Jones explains that genetic health may improve as we are less likely to encounter recessive mutations common within a subpopulation (for example, if you want to avoid having a child with cystic fibrosis breed with someone from Nigeria). Continue reading
“Society is going to have to make a judgement on what value it puts on extending the lives of cancer patients against all the other demands on the NHS”
Broadcaster: BBC 1
On 1st June 2015, there was quite a large amount of coverage of a recent clinical trial reported to have had dramatic effects on the survival rates of patients with melanoma (a form of skin cancer). The reason this particular clip (4:45) stands out as useful for teaching is the combination of a clear explanation of what the new cancer immunotherapy drugs are doing, but also the difficult decisions to be made in the light of a growing number of exciting but expensive new drugs for cancer. What price can a health service afford to pay to extend one person’s life when, with a finite budget, buying their medicine means that someone elsewhere in the system will miss out on their treatment instead?
For more on this story see this link (BBC website).
The new test looks for expression of a particular protein in the blood
Broadcaster: Sky News
Ovarian cancer has a high mortality rate because symptoms are often vague, allowing the disease to develop before it is properly diagnosed. This 2.4 minute clip from is from Sky News (though the same story was widely covered on other outlets on the same day). The piece reports findings from a new study in which a blood test looks for levels of a certain biomarker, a protein called CA125. The crucial thing in this study, which may pave the way for establishment of a screening programme, was the benefit of annual checks on the level of CA125 in a patient’s blood rather than a one-off check. It seems that absolute levels of the protein can be quite variable between different women, but a change in the level is a much more significant indicator of underlying developments. The approach of screening blood for cancer-related biomarkers is an emerging area in cancer treatment and might allow for screening for other variants too, such as prostate cancer.
Hayley Francies from the Sanger explains to Channel 4 reporter Tom Clark how the organoids are a more realistic tool for cancer research than typical monolayer cells
Broadcaster: Channel 4
This 3.2 minute clip from Channel 4 looks at the use of organoids. Scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute have, for the first time, grown tumours from 20 different colon cancer patients using matrigel to encourage the cells to form 3D “miniorgans” rather than growing in a monolayer as is more typical for cultured cells. Each organoid is different, reflecting the genetic errors in the donor, effectively a copy of the individual patients cancer grown in the lab. As a result a collection of tissues suitable for screening of existing and new drugs have been generated which may help both to select the most suitable drug for a given patient but also to improve our understanding of the cancers.
Sophie has cystic fibrosis. Gene therapy might free her from a rigorous daily routine
Broadcaster: BBC 2
Review by Amy Evans
“Picture a world where cancer was cured by a packet of pills”. Miracle cure, an episode of the BBC Horizon series, looks at the promises and hopes to come following the sequencing of the human genome and how, a decade on from the initial publication of the complete sequence, the information gained from the mammoth effort has been helpful. This is a good program for anyone interested in the human genome project, the growing “genomics” field and bioethics.
This program follows three people, each with a different genetic condition, in order to find what genomic might mean for them; Sophie has cystic fibrosis, Emma had cancer and Tom is an alcoholic. It is interesting that they included addictions, such as alcoholism, since this is a more controversial condition, which not many people would think as having a genetic component.
A strength of this programme is the emphasis placed on the interaction of these genes with the environment in developing these conditions. On the down side, they don’t mention epigenetics which would have be interesting (I suspect if it was made now, they would have included this). They also do not go into much detail about the specific genetics of the conditions. However the key topics covered are is given but it covers key topics:
Gene therapy: http://bobnational.net/record/291933 (16 minutes; this clip is spliced from three sections on gene therapy). It is interesting to hear how well the gene therapy trials progressed after the release of the human genome sequence and this section touches on the ethics of ‘playing God’ in gene therapy. Sophie meets Rhys Evans who was an early recipient of gene therapy for CF. She also visits scientists looking at gene delivery.
For more information on gene therapy and cystic fibrosis follow this link. Continue reading