05 December 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 636
Channel 4, Monday 14 November 2011
Breakthroughs in biology that 'will transform the resilience and strength of the human body' are the subject of the last episode of Stephen Hawking's brilliant series 'Brave New World'. In just under an hour 'Biology' takes the viewer on a whirlwind tour of some of the newest and most awe-inspiring technologies. We're talking cures for cancer, organ regeneration and experiments in longevity and heritability.
The programme begins on a remote island near Panama with Kevin Tidgewell, a scientist 'obsessed' with cyanobacteria, or 'marine snot', an algae-like substance that produces toxins to kill off competitors in an over-populated ocean. Researchers are now exploiting the bacteria's weapon of marine warfare in the lab, wiping out breast cancer cells by exposing them to one of cyanobacteria's potent chemicals.
Corporal Hernandez is next. He's an ex-marine who had his thigh blown apart in Iraq. Told he would never walk again, Hernandez could have lost hope. Instead, he's the living example of a new way in which the human body can be tricked into healing itself. Thanks to an insertion of a biological structure, which is present in all animal cells and recruits stem cells to produce healthy tissue rather than scar tissue, the damaged area has started to heal. Hernandez is now not only able to stand, but can hit the gym for a run.
The next section continues on the theme of regeneration, but this time the aim is to heal the human heart 'without a scalpel in sight'. Mind blowing footage ensues as open-heart surgery is performed on a one day old mouse. The tiny creature is popped in an ice bucket, before surgeon Dr Hesham Sadek promptly opens its chest cavity, removing 15 percent of the left ventricle. Three weeks after the operation the heart has completely recovered and is back to full size, but this amazing capacity to regenerate heart tissue isn't seen in mice older than seven days. This work demonstrates that the mammalian heart can fix itself, but just forgets how to as it gets older. The next challenge is to find out why and how the heart turns off this ability to regenerate.
But what is it that determines whether or not we live long and healthy lives? Take Elsie and Natalie. Elsie exercises almost every day and eats a healthy, balanced diet, while Natalie is a chain smoker and loves hamburgers. Yet they have two things in common: both are over 80 and neither has ever had a serious disease. They're part of the Wellderly project, which is investigating whether certain genes can help people to live longer. Dr Eric Topol and his colleagues have compared their DNA with that of people who died before the age of 80 to identify a gene which increases the risk of dying younger.
Professor Marcus Pembrey then introduces us to epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene expression. Professor Pembrey describes how our lifestyles can affect not only our children, but also our children's children. We learn that a father who smoked as a pre-adolescent will have sons with an increased risk of obesity as early as age nine; that the grandchildren of Swedish men who over-ate as pre-adolescents are more likely to die early; and that women who suffer higher levels of stress while pregnant are more likely to have children with lower intelligence quotients (IQs) and greater emotional difficulties.
All in all, this was a fascinating programme, though a somewhat over-enthusiastic tendency to overstate the potentials of the research let it down at times. It's clear that we are a long way from these results being translated into anything like real-life applications. Nonetheless it was inspiring to see scientists so passionate about their work, and though the programme's occasional over-ebullience might have sometimes seemed a little much, it's likely that a new generation of scientists could find some serious inspiration in the wonderful array of new technologies shown.