27 August 2013
ByAppeared in BioNews 719
BBC2, Wednesday 7 August 2013
Presented by Dara Ó Briain
Dara O'Briain's Science Club: Adventures in Time explores time from many different angles, looking at diverse areas from aerodynamic engineering to tissue engineering. Technology that can take seven-hundredths of a second off a bobsleigh race time could win Britain an Olympic gold medal; cognitive research on 'time travelling' rats explores how these animals are able to plan ahead just like humans.
The balance between reporting and studio experiments gives the programme an engaging and fast-paced news-style feel, while audience participation in the fun and intriguing experiments backed by Dara O'Briain's quick-witted and entertaining commentary appeals to young and adult audiences alike.
One of the features examined the role of stem cells in extending life through organ generation. The programme took us to the Texas Heart Institute, USA, where Dr Doris Taylor hopes to be able to create a transplantable heart in the next ten years. Working with pig hearts that have been stripped of all their cells, she aims to grow human heart muscle on the remaining protein scaffold.
The pig heart is washed of all its original cells, literally using soap and water. Billions of human stem cells are then injected into it and they differentiate into the right type of tissue and organise themselves in the right way to recreate a heart. An impressive shot shows the heart spontaneously beating in a vat when its automatic pacemaker cells kick into action after the stems cells differentiate into heart cells, nerve tissue and blood vessels. It's a wonderful moment to witness. The accompanying explanation on how the laboratory scientists engineer a mechanical human body for the heart to pump against is simple but clear. Potential accusations of playing god - or Frankenstein - are addressed pre-emptively, to the credit of the producers who are helping to promote this kind of science among the general public.
The heart story ties in nicely with an earlier feature in the programme explaining how research on bat genomes may help prolong life. Bats live relatively long lives for their size and it is thought that they may have a special metabolism that prolongs cell life. It is thought that their cell mechanisms prevent rapid shortening of the telomeres, DNA caps at the end of chromosomes that are associated with ageing. Although it is far from clear how the theory might be translated into an applicable solution to ageing, making the link between such basic science and its possibilities has a place in the public communication of science, even if it might appear a little too bold for a grant committee.
One downside of this particular episode is that all the features focus on science from the US or the UK. This may give an imbalanced view of the diversity of science research globally, with Europe and emerging economies not appearing at all on the scene. Personally, I wish programmes like this featured a bit more innovation and research from emerging economies like China, Brazil and India who are likely to be big contributors in the not-too-distant future.
Overall, the programme does a great job of communicating science in an accessible and engaging way that combines the best of news-style reporting, family entertainment, education and British humour. It will certainly renew public interest in science, especially with future episodes promising to address the more challenging and pressing global problems of our time.