31 October 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 631
Channel 4, Monday 24 October 2011
'Science is on the brink of changing your life'. It's a bold and risky opening statement, but I find my initial scepticism quelled. Whether this is due to the promise coming from the revered Professor Stephen Hawking, or because I've allowed myself to get caught up in the increasingly dramatic soundtrack is hard to say. But either way, the addition of flashy sound bites from enthusiastic scientific celebrities coupled with epic landscape shots from exotic destinations is sufficient to convince me that I'm in for a well-crafted voyage of discovery. 'Prepare to see your future', Professor Hawking tells me, so I buckle up and wait for the ride.
We are due to cover 'the discoveries that matter most' in the fight against brain disorders, viruses, heart disease, malaria and cancer – the 'five big killers'. This is serious and complicated stuff and I'm duly intrigued. But pretty soon I think I've figured out the route we're taking. We're on a whistle-stop tour of some of the wackiest scientific research you could imagine: from light-induced gender-confusion in fruit flies to heart surgery carried out by robots.
Don't get me wrong, the programme and its chosen science is very interesting – who wouldn't want to hear about the 'experimental physicist' who plans to rid the world of malaria using lasers? But whether this is truly the science that's on the brink of changing our lives, I'm less sure.
On the whole the documentary is pretty enjoyable, however. It is well filmed with plenty of exciting locations to look at, albeit a bit heavy on the close-up shots of laboratory equipment. There is also a remarkable but accurate absence of lab coats and a couple of science jokes thrown in as well, which keeps it modern and approachable. The 'Medical Breakthroughs and Me' section is worth mentioning too as a well placed reminder of some of the life-changing things that science has already achieved, including the contraceptive pill, fertility treatments and anaesthesia.
But as a PhD student working in the field, the piece on heart disease was a disappointment. Lord Robert Winston was the front man for this section, which focused on the treatment of a single type of heart disease, atrial fibrillation, using a robotically controlled laser. 'This modern technology, this miracle', Lord Winston gushes, could one day 'replace' open heart surgery. But atrial fibrillation is just one type of heart disease which can, in many cases, be managed with drugs. Many other heart conditions, even with this new technology, would continue to require complex invasive surgery. The robot is an amazing innovation, yes, but let's not get carried away.
A similar but arguably more hyped moment comes during the section on brain disorders with Professor Richard Dawkins. It looks at optogenetics; a fascinating and 'out-there' science that involves genetically modifying cells so that they respond to light. In neurons this technology has been shown to alter behaviour and even mood. As a tool for better understanding how individual neuronal circuits in the brain work, it's a breakthrough. But to have Professor Dawkins say that one day 'it could even be used as a treatment itself' is, in my opinion, verging on silly. To do this we would have to genetically modify people's brains - and what are the chances of that?
In comparison, the section on cancer was dealt with much better by Dr Aarathi Prasad. It follows the story of Tina Miranda, who has lung cancer, to illustrate the improved success of anti-cancer drugs when they are tailored to match the 'genetic fingerprint' of the patient - an idea that is supported by a large body of scientific research. Now that looking for changes in known cancer-causing genes is relatively quick and cheap, the 'new era in cancer treatments, one of personalised medicines and smart drugs' that Dr Prasad describes, is one that I might be able to believe in.
But overall I was left a bit disappointed. I put this down to a failure of the programme to live up to its own billing. The documentary covers some of the most exciting and unusual medical research, true, but not 'the most important'. All the research is excellently explained and if you sat down to watch the programme because you like science and find it fascinating; it isn't going to change your mind. But equally, if you think scientific research is often far-fetched, expensive and irrelevant, this programme won't do much to change your mind either.