28 May 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 658
Wellcome Trust, May 2012
Featuring Dr Simon Chaplin and Dr Ultan McDermott
As a promotional tool to advertise the research funded by the Wellcome Trust, this short film aims both to enthuse and to inform. In both respects it's relatively successful, combining clear and engaging explanations of two projects with smart graphics and shots of impressive-looking equipment. Unfortunately, a slow and rather confusing start may discourage some viewers from reaching the main messages, all of which are in the second half.
The film is composed primarily of interviews with two men: Dr Ultan McDermott of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, who explains the ambitious cancer screening project he runs, and the head of the Wellcome Library, Dr Simon Chaplin, who describes the work of the Trust in archiving material and making it available to the public. Both men are clearly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the work they do, and although the filming was not always to my taste - the opening shots of Dr McDermott's back as he walks around the corridors of the Sanger Institute seemed a little unnecessary, and his reflection in the glass-fronted cell culture cabinet during his interview was frankly irritating - this did not prevent my enjoyment of the film.
The way the film was structured made it difficult to see initially how the interviews were related so the first few minutes feel a bit disjointed - not necessarily a problem in a 30 minute documentary, but in a five minute film I'm not sure that the casual viewer would persevere.
For those that did, however, the remainder of the short film is a marked improvement. Dr McDermott is excellent, combining his experience as a clinical oncologist and a scientist to bring a human angle to his research into cancer therapeutics. He explains the science in a way that is both succinct and easy to understand, and the potential impact of his research on the cancer field is evident.
Dr Chaplin's inclusion in the film was also an inspired choice: he makes the rather dry subject of archiving and digitising the Trust's historical collection seem relevant and important, and he is well placed to put the Trust's research efforts into genetics and genomics into the context of their other research areas.
As scientists, it is easy for us to forget that the value of our research is greatly enriched by its accessibility not only to the scientific community but to the wider public. The Wellcome Trust is a charitable foundation supporting scientific research in this country and internationally to the tune of £600 million per year, and is committed to making the research it funds freely available. If anything, I felt this could have been given even more weight in the film - after all, had the human genome been sequenced entirely by companies such as Celera Genomics rather than the partially Wellcome Trust-funded Human Genome Project, the patenting of genetic material might have made the kind of research described in the film not possible (1).
Inevitably, a five minute film by the Wellcome Trust about the research it funds is a little one-sided. The film closes with the idea that the cancer genome project will enable doctors to sequence their patients' cancers, check the database for the appropriate mutation and immediately select the best possible chemotherapy. While this promise is unquestionably exciting, there is no mention of the cost of sequencing a genome, which is unlikely to be possible on the NHS in the near future, nor of the difficulty in determining which of the many mutations present in a cancer cell is the driver mutation that causes the disease (2).
Despite this, the film's great success is in communicating the enthusiasm of its two narrators for the research they describe. 'There is something particular about genetics, understanding the make-up of our genetic code, that gives it huge potential to impact on [other areas of research]', says Dr Chaplin in the film. Less than a decade after the sequencing of the first human genome, with huge efforts like the cancer genome project receiving funding from the Wellcome Trust the realisation of that potential seems ever more achievable.