The pandemic has created huge demand for high quality home learning materials. One such resource is Great Ormond Street Hospital's new animated short film on gene therapy. The film lasts just over six-minutes, which is an ideal amount of time given the depth of information and target audience.
The premise is that two students are members of the hospital's Young Person's Advisory Group and are trying to find out more about the topic of gene therapy, with the help of lead gene therapy nurse, Katie Snell.
The scene is set with a stripped back description of the relationship between genes and DNA, and what can go awry when these bodily systems are faulty. The example given of a genetic fault leading to a weakened immune system and increased risk from COVID-19 is effective at making the application seem current.
I think it was great that the film highlighted the incremental nature of medical research, but perhaps there could have been a little more to emphasise what an exciting time it is for the field to be welcoming next-generation technologies, such as the CRISPR approach to genome editing. This is somewhat lost among the expressionless characters, whose speech although necessarily plain, doesn't convey the passion of our clinician-scientists in pursuing potentially life-changing breakthroughs.
While the concept of gene therapy is simple – replacing a broken copy of a gene with a working one – the ability to perform such a feat lies at the very cutting edge of science. The explanation is exceptionally clear, but the film perhaps could have gone a little further to convey the significant challenges of getting such treatments into mainstream medicine, to make clearer that inspiring careers will lie ahead in this field of research for decades to come.
I enjoyed the story of Liv and her family and their journey to receive life-changing gene therapy for an immune system disorder four years ago, which I felt deeply humanised the animation. Her experience left me wanting to know a little more about their personal story – their bravery in accepting such an experimental treatment and how many more children will now be helped because of their courage. Perhaps this is something that could be looked at in a separate film or accompanying resource.
I thought the question posed at the end about gene therapy being the cure of all illnesses was a good one to conclude with. There persists a common misconception that science holds all the answers, when in fact we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of how our cells work.
The way the COVID-19 vaccine has been developed involves genetic technologies, so another potential extension activity might be to draw parallels exploring how advances in one area of medicine can relate to progress in a completely separate one.
I think the ideal audience for this film would be students in the latter stages of secondary school or those studying biological subjects at A-Level or beyond. It might also be appropriate for a lay adult audience, as the scene-setter for a wider debate, or in a clinical setting to help inform potential patients suitable for gene therapy treatment.
Thanks to Great Ormond Street Hospital for bringing out this excellent film and to the students and families involved in making it. I've no doubt it will play a role in inspiring the next generation of genetic researchers and in helping families suffering with inherited conditions to better understand this promising field of research.