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Film Review: Dish Life

20 February 2017

By Paul Waldron

Appeared in BioNews 889

Dish Life

A Cambridge Shorts film

Released: 21 November 2016

Produced by Dr Loriana Vitillo, Karen Jent and Chloe Thomas


Dish Life is the last of four films made for Cambridge Shorts, a project that aimed to connect researchers with local filmmakers. I watched all four and would particularly recommend the first one, which attempts to answer the question of whether robots could or should be programmed to feel pain, on the basis that few things cannot be improved with clips from Terminator 2 and The Simpsons.

In Dish Life, stem cells are represented as small children in a swimming pool who need to be continually fed, looked after and have their needs for space and growth met at all times. This is accompanied by short interviews with stem cell researchers, who talk directly about the trials of working with the cells. I think there are many aspects of the analogy which work, but I admit that they lost me a bit at the point where they started discussing edible duvets.

For my own research in writing this review, I showed the film to a friend of mine who is working with stem cells for his PhD to get an authentic opinion. He asked what audience it was aimed at, and I honestly was not sure. While the film appeared to assume a fair amount of knowledge regarding what stem cells are and what they are planned to be used for, other parts resembled a video from a Teletubbies episode with unusually ambitious subject matter.

My friend asked me to point out that, for the record, it's not quite true that all the stem cells in your body can 'become anything' – stem cells in an adult body can only become one of a few types of cell; it is the pluripotent cells from an embryo which can become anything. While the film doesn't give much specific information about the science of stem cells, perhaps it had a different aim in mind.

This alternative aim, and probably the best part of the film for me, was the insight into what a stem cell researcher actually does all day. In some coverage of stem cell research it can seem like the scientist occasionally has an idea and springs into action, building a revolutionary new construct from stem cells as if they are toy bricks.

In fact, much of the time in the lab is spent feeding the cells, splitting them into new dishes to give them more space, and especially squinting at them down the microscope while wondering what on earth can possibly be wrong with them today. The film gives a good demonstration of the myriad ways in which a stem cell can move away from a healthy well-fed appearance to look worryingly like they might all have died overnight. In this way the cells are nudged and encouraged ever so slowly towards a particular cell fate. This all comes across very well, apart from the small, perhaps forgivable exaggeration of how much scientists are at the beck and call of their timer.

The Cambridge Shorts project is an interesting initiative, and it is good to see new ways in which scientists try to engage a wider audience. I would certainly say that, at eight minutes, Dish Life is worth a watch for its portrayal of the daily grind of those most unsung of heroes – the researchers.

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