Tissue Engineering – The Farm Revealed (3)

The third episode in The Farm Revealed series (Channel 4, 13th June 2007) a spin-off from the Animal Farm documentaries, draws on footage concerning tissue engineering. In line with its more “entertainment oriented” approach to this material, it largely focuses on attempts by Dr Chris Smith and presenter Rufus Hound to grow a burger in the studio from a joint of meat.

On the serious side, this programme explores the techniques of cell culture and tissue engineering required to grow organs – for example the nose of Giles Coren, presenter of Animal Farm. Documentary footage shows the process of scaffolding cells, growing cartilage, and finally attaching skin. The purpose of this is to help heal burns, repair bones, etc. This leads on to a discussion of stem cells – the cells used growing these organs.

Initially we are introduced to the use of stem cells in the context of therapy: here in the treatment of severe combined immune deficiency (SCID), where haematopoietic stem cell transplants are used to populate bone marrow with T-cell producing cells. However, in a clip from Animal Farm, their use in growing organs is revealed.

Olivia Judson investigates how stem cells taken from human patients and injected into the live foetuses of sheep, have the effect of “humanising” their organs. The sheep are referred to as “up to 15% human” (00:13:58), and contain, both human, and sheep, cells. In scientific terms these are chimeric animals. Their creator, Prof. Esmail Zanjani, intends these sheep to become a source of patient-specific organs for transplant. The obvious endpoint of this is summed up in the quote “one day we might all have a personalised flock of sheep on standby to provide us with new organs if any of ours fail” (00:18:05), the ethics of which is explored briefly in the studio.

Perhaps the only thing of real value that this programme adds to the presentation of the same material in Animal Farm is the brief interview with artist Oron Catts, who uses tissue engineering techniques to create works of art.

Though this programme does acknowledge that tissues, like burgers, cannot be grown and engineered overnight – let alone in the course of a half hour TV show, and the explanation of the potential of stem cell is concise and accurate, it continues to suffer from the deficiencies noted in previous posts concerning episode 1 and episode 2. In this respect, for the purposes of teaching, the original series Animal Farm remains, both scientifically and bioethically, a much more appropriate resource.

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