Epigenetics – The ghost in your genes

June 30, 2008

 
Epigenetics – Turning genes on and off  

The BBC Horizon documentary The ghost in your genes, successfully explains a particularly complex field of science. Genetic inheritance has historically been thought of as involving the transmission of DNA from one generation to the next affected by occasional mutations in the DNA itself (00:04:37 – 00:05:50). “Up to now, inheritance is just the genes, the DNA sequence. I suspect that we’re going to be able to demonstrate that inheritance is more than that”, explains Professor Marcus Pembrey from the Institute of Child Health, UCL. A few scientists had hypothesised that the conventional genetic model and mode of inheritance was too simplistic to explain the complexity of human beings. The revelation that the human genome likely contains only about 30,000 genes (00:08:54 – 00:11:33), coupled with increasing experimental evidence, now leads scientists to believe that other factors allow genes to be switched on and off in response to environmental stimuli. The consequences of which may affect subsequent generations.

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The Family Man – playing God at the fertility clinic?

June 23, 2008

 
The Family Man – Dr Patrick Stowe  

(Warning: contains plot spoilers!) The Family Man is a three part BBC 1 drama centred on the successful (fictional) ‘Wishart Fertility Clinic’. The patriarch of the clinic is Dr Patrick Stowe (Trevor Eve) whom is driven by pursuit of better ways to help distressed couples have a child. The drama follows four couples facing a spectrum of fertility problems. In an attempt to fulfil their dreams, they turn to Dr Stowe to help find the answers. At times this tests the legal parameters of fertility treatment in the United Kingdom, and as such raises a whole raft of bioethical issues.

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‘An Adventure into Ourselves’ – DNA: The Human Race, Channel 4, 2003

June 17, 2008
 

Sequencing the Human Genome (DNA: The Human Race, Channel 4, 22nd March 2003)

In this, the third of four episodes in Channel 4’s award winning DNA series (first broadcast in 2003), narrator Bernard Hill explores the origins and eventual completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP). Described as the attempt to “catalogue all the genes that carry the instructions to make a human being” (00:00:08), the programme features the majority of the key actors in this scientific and political drama including James Watson, Sir John Sulston, Fred Sanger, Craig Venter, and former US President Bill Clinton. Insofar as the series successfully integrates discussion of the scale and scope of the project in scientific, political and financial terms, it forms an excellent basis for teaching both the science and bioethics of the HGP and large scale sociotechnical projects.

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WIT: A window on tensions in clinical trials

June 12, 2008

(Warning: contains plot spoilers!) Adapted from Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Wit tells the tragic story of Professor Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson). Vivian, a ruthless scholar of 17th Century English poetry, is diagnosed with advanced stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. Dr Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd), Vivian’s consultant physician and leading figure in this area of medical research, explains that the most effective treatment option she has is an aggressive experimental chemotherapy at the full dose.

Professor Vivian Bearing

 
Professor Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson)  

She cautiously consents to the therapy and embarks on a degrading regime of eight cycles, which no other patient has completed before. With a fearless determination, Vivian does everything the doctors ask of her, and as such illustrates the central ethical issue observed in this film; the conflict of interest witnessed between clinical therapy and clinical research. Throughout, this is entangled with clinical incompetence, issues of informed consent, end of life decisions and Vivian’s frustration with the hospitals insensitive mechanistic approach to their patients, having been asked repeatedly “How are you feeling today?” (00:04:10 – 00:05:25) Read the rest of this entry »


Superbugs – How safe is your hospital? (Panorama)

June 12, 2008

Concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become a staple feature of news and documentaries. An April 2008 Panorama special How safe is your hospital? looked at the alarming rise of Clostridium difficile (C. diff) in UK hospitals. Showing the programme as a whole with a group of students would be inappropriate; it lasts for a full hour and the pace is often cumbersome. In addition, I fear that much of the discussion of old ladies and diarrhoea runs the risk of generating inappropriate responses from classes of teenagers.

Having said that, there are some real nuggets here which, appropriately selected, can raise some of the scientific and ethical issues associated with antibiotic usage. The opening 3 minutes of the programme, available as an iPlayer clip on the BBC website, has general potential as a scene-setter. The full episode is also being streamed on the Panorama website (in the BBC’s older RealPlayer-based format). The most useful section of the episode starts about 14 minutes in (14:20 on the streamed video), beginning with the interview of Prof Richard James from Nottingham University and showing the following 5 minutes (through to the section on the outbreak at the Stoke Mandeville hospital, although there are some other natural end-points in between if this is too long). 

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A new service from BioethicsBytes

June 6, 2008

Over the last few months the BioethicsBytes team have been working on a new tool to help teachers of secondary school biology for 14 to 18 year olds in England and Wales.

curriculum screenshot.jpg

 
 

With ethics becoming an increasing part of the science curriculum at both GCSE and A level, we’ve carried out an audit of the bioethical content in all of the new specifications in order to be able to recommend BioethicsBytes and other resources relating to each topic. We hope you find this useful.

Click this link to visit the Bioethics in the UK Curriculum page.