26 September 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 626
Directed by Amy Hardie
Watch a preview of this film
The film 'Stem Cell Revolutions: A Vision of the Future' uses interviews to document how stem cells have 'vitally changed our understanding of the human body'. The film opens with a voiceover by the film's celebrity commentator novelist Margaret Atwood: 'Sometimes it seems stem cells are proposed as the answer to everything…What can't they do?'
What follows is the behind-the-scenes story of each major advance in stem cell science leading to present-day scientific and clinical developments. The result is a fascinating, unsensationalised and complete guide for anyone who wants an informed appreciation of stem cell science and an understanding of what all the fuss is about.
The story starts with the Second World War Hiroshima bombing and resulting radiation sickness that led to early experiments involving bone marrow transplants and discovery of stem cells in blood. Next we learn about Harvard Professor Howard Green's experimental therapy to save two burn victims by grafting skin stem cells.
Professor Green's work led to experimental cornea transplant surgery to restore vision lost through chemical burns. Later, Professor Pete Coffey from University College London's Institute of Ophthalmology discusses his research to cure macular degeneration, which causes blindness among 25 percent of people over 65.
From the cornea, the story turns to how scientists linked cancer teratoma tumour cell growth to the discovery of pluripotent embryonic stem cell. Professor Sir Martin Evans who received a Nobel Prize for his stem cell work is interviewed, among others.
The spotlight next moves onto the cloning research of British scientists Professor Sir John Gurdon and Professor Sir Ian Wilmut - who cloned Dolly the sheep. Their work was the precursor for Professor Shinya Yamanaka's breakthrough of inducing adult stem skin cells into iPS cells. Dr Connie Eaves from the University of British Columbia described the impact of iPS cells as turning 'our understanding of human development on its head' because we believed development was irreversible.
The film ends with several scientists talking about modern-day stem cell research, including therapeutic hopes, medical tourism, rogue therapies, the ethical controversy surrounding embryo destruction, and the potential to create sperm and embryos in the lab with iPS cells.
The first and final quarters of the film are fast paced. The middle segment slows to profile two patients in India who are seeking cutting-edge eye surgery available at the LV Prasad Eye Institute. Once the focus switches to the second patient, we are told that the first patient - a 17-year-old who lost sight in one eye due to an accident with bleach - suffered an infection and surgery was unsuccessful. His inclusion seems unnecessary. It feels incongruous for the camera to suddenly follow these two patients in greater detail than other patient case interviews.
The film's 70-minute duration consequently feels like better editing in the middle would have left time to cover other issues. For example, the film omits discussion of biobanks and cord blood. It also could have more clearly covered the basics of the human embryonic stem cell debate.
The dancer who is repeatedly shown practising in a studio added gratuitous artistic kitsch and could also have been omitted. The film is superbly animated by Cameron Duguid with the illustrations serving an important purpose. For example, the trunk of a tree appears with body cell types on each branch to explain what 'stem' cells are about.
Margaret Atwood is a highlight of the film. Her memorable insights offer a nice counterbalance to the scientific commentary. She is anything but a passive observer as she gives a feisty challenge to Professor Austin Smith, Director of the Stem Cell Institute at Cambridge University. She argues that people make morally-neutral scientific tools and moral choices about how to use them.
Despite these minor criticisms, the film is clear and interesting. It fulfils its aim 'to present the 'real science' of stem cells and take the realities behind hopes and fears associated with stem cell research to the cinema and TV audience' and raises the bar for science documentaries.
The film was made with the support of the Wellcome Trust by film director/producer Amy Hardie and science producer Dr Clare Blackburn. Free UK screenings began in late May, each followed by a Q&A session with a stem cell scientist. The audience is encouraged to provide detailed feedback that will help the producers decide what the public wants from science documentaries.