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TV Review: Tyneside's Genetic Pioneers

23 July 2018
Appeared in BioNews 959

'We're about to witness a miracle!'

A lady in the throes of childbirth fills the screen, and with a long, drawn-out grunt of pain, baby Leo is born.

Featuring in the introductory scene of 'Tyneside's Genetic Pioneers', this is quite a start to his young life, and indeed to the programme. Part of the BBC One series entitled 'How the NHS Changed Our World', produced to mark the 70th birthday of the National Health Service, the dramatic opening scene certainly enticed me in.

The programme explores some of the advances in genetic science that have occurred in the north of England and, in particular, in the inspiringly named Centre For Life in Newcastle. My ears prick up, intrigued, upon hearing that the facility 'isn't a traditional hospital or even really a hospital at all'. A non-hospital hospital, you say? Tell me more! The presenter, Kirsten O'Brien, obliges, giving a general overview of the centre as a place that is, well, dedicated to life (I told you its name was inspired). The work at the centre aims to 'unlock the secrets of our genes' to revolutionise medicine. Sounds… ambitious. 

The first major section of the show discusses fertility. O'Brien provides a welcome personal touch to the documentary by conversing about her own fertility struggles. The inclusion of a photograph of her adorable twins born as the result of IVF is a stroke of genius – it made genetics feel more accessible while making me warm to O'Brien. 

The show progresses with the inclusion of more babies. Lots of cooing ensues before, finally, we get an injection of science. A video is shown with O'Brien gushing, 'This is the moment life begins.' The show pointedly tries to avoid using scientific jargon throughout, so I remain unsure as to exactly what the process the video is depicting. Despite this lack of information, it feels surreal, fantastical and miraculous. And we know from the introduction what a fan of miracles I am! 

In a rather disjointed change of topic, Professor Alison Murdoch of Newcastle University, examines how our views of reproductive medicine have changed in the past 20 years. She reproachfully suggests that some people actually thought that 'IVF babies were freaks'. Shaking my head in disbelief, it was definitely a thought-provoking assessment. 

The programme progresses, again rather disconnectedly, by giving some neat and concise explanations of genetic themes such as DNA and inheritance. Then it's time for another real-life example of genetic science in action. Enter Nick James, a young man who has a 'defective gene that leaves him highly prone to bowel cancer'. James' appearance is far too brief but his parting words – 'Because I know [about the gene], it means I can do something about it and that feels pretty good' – succinctly highlight the power and scope of genetic science. 

In a smoother transition, O'Brien gives an overview of the broad range of contentious ethical battles that have faced the centre in recent history. This actually leads us to the most scientifically interesting part of the programme with O'Brien discussing the creation of beating hearts, from scratch, with Professor Majlinda Lako of Newcastle University. 

The whole process, which is made possible with the use of stem cells, is explained remarkably clearly but it still sounded like it belonged in the realms of science fiction. It was slightly unnerving and I'm glad that it wasn't any more graphic. 

The theme of stem cells persists with the introduction of Garry Morse, a promising young golfer, who lost sight in one eye following an ammonia attack. Now I'm going to reluctantly admit this part left me feeling a little squeamish. But it was incredibly fascinating to hear that Mr Morse's 'bad eye' was repaired by using stem cells from his 'good eye'. This is some truly exceptional science and it was presented clearly in a way that didn't leave me in a state of befuddlement. 

Following a momentary mention earlier, O'Brien picks up the ethical strand and weaves it into a discussion about so-called three-person babies. The centre was recently granted a licence to use mitochondrial donation as a means of eliminating mitochondrial diseases. I would have liked a more in-depth discussion about the science of the process and the 'regulatory and legal hurdles' that it has faced. The programme producer disagreed apparently, and went in a rather more emotionally-charged direction with the inclusion of Sharon Bernadi. Bernadi has lost six children to mitochondrial disease. There was a lump in my throat as O'Brien asked her to offer a rebuttal to those who saw three-parent babies as 'meddling'. 

'I think it's a brilliant idea, they're not going to know the heartache of losing a baby full-term or watching a young boy sadly die,' she responded. It's hair-raising, heart-breaking, tear-jerking stuff. Not what I'd typically expect from a genetics documentary, to be honest. 

Again, the programme abruptly changes course with a discussion of a device that tests genetic samples for various diseases. 'It feels like I'm seeing the future,' says the ever-affable O'Brien. The ensuing discussion with Professor Sir John Burn of Newcastle University, about how such a device will become mainstream and readily available for use in hospitals, airports and our own homes is striking. This technology will become the norm, but it still seems so futuristic. It was a slightly unsettling and disconcerting look at how quickly genetics is developing. 

During the close of the show, Professor Burn provides his enlightening take on genetics: 'It's magic, but it's not the magic bullet.' This leads O'Brien to speculate on how genetics and the NHS may look in the next 70 years, providing a suitably open-ended and thought-provoking conclusion.  

Overall, I think that 'Tyneside's Genetic Pioneers' was an illuminative watch, but not without fault. In a mere 29 minutes, a vast number of real-life stories were interspersed with comments from researchers, leaving it feeling rushed and disjointed. I would have preferred more depth to both the stories and the science behind them, so it could easily have been twice as long. However, I did find that the inclusion of real stories to be a very powerful tool. 

For a whistle-stop tour of genetics in the north of the UK, this programme really fits the bill. And it has really made me think where we might be heading in 70 years. I can only hope that I'll be a hopelessly hip 96-year old with all the latest genetic gizmos in my cupboard and still be reviewing decidedly entertaining shows like this. 

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