DNA – The Promise & The Price

January 26, 2009
"A child born in 1953, the structure of DNA has just been discovered. 1989 and this babies genetic fingerprint can be identified. The first single gene for Huntington's disease has been discovered. 2003 this child's entire genetic code can now be read and faulty genes in his DNA can be adjusted. Another birth, but this time no ordinary miracle. The babies sex and eye colour were decided before she was conceived; also her hair, the shape of her nose and her intelligence. The date of her birth? Perhaps only a few years from now. She's born from a revolution in genetics. A revolution where each new step brings new questions of ethics and responsibility. And as the promises of the science gets greater, so do the questions for all of us get bigger."

Narrator Bill Paterson: "A child born in 1953, the structure of DNA has just been discovered. 1989 and this baby's genetic fingerprint can be identified. The first single gene for Huntington's disease has been discovered. 2003 this child's entire genetic code can now be read and faulty genes in his DNA can be adjusted. Another birth, but this time no ordinary miracle. The baby's sex and eye colour were decided before she was conceived; also her hair, the shape of her nose and her intelligence. The date of her birth? Perhaps only a few years from now. She's born from a revolution in genetics. A revolution where each new step brings new questions of ethics and responsibility. And as the promises of the science gets greater, so do the questions for all of us get bigger."

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DNA – The Promise & The Price provides an excellent resource for discussing the ethical implications of advancing genetic research, focusing on; gene therapy, stem cells and cloning. The documentary examines the frontiers of genetic science, revealing how researchers attempt to fulfil DNA’s potential to help cure and prevent disease. It also questions how some aspects of these novel technologies may have significant consequences for individuals and society. Bill Paterson: “Much is promised by genetic science, the manipulation of our genes. But can it deliver? And if it does are we ready to take responsibility for meddling with the very fabric of life itself: our DNA”.

"When it comes to medical research, any medical technology

Professor Steve Jones: "When it comes to medical research, any medical technology that works, it is very quickly accepted by the public. Ethicists may not like it, scientists may not like it, but the public, if they believe it works they will accept it, and the legislation will always follow. Ethics has always followed science, it's never led it and I don't see any reason why genetics is going to be any different. Ethicists would love to tell geneticists what to do, but I'm afraid the geneticists are not going to listen."

The topics found in DNA – The Promise & The Price include: genetics; genetic diseases; gene therapy; transplantation; stem cells; and cloning can all be found in the UK National Curriculum. Please note all timings mentioned  include advertisement breaks – (00:04:51 – 00:08:00, 00:25:31 – 00:28:40 and 00:46:50 – 00:50:00) 

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Superdoctors – Miracle cures

October 20, 2008

Robert Winston introducing the programme

Commenting in the second episode of the three part Superdoctors series that “one of the most exciting frontiers of our age is stem cells“, Robert Winston goes on to ask “how will these cutting edge technologies change the way that you, and I, and are children are treated?” (Start – 00:04:02). Stem cell therapy is at the beginning of its expected transition from the laboratory to the clinical application. The programme seeks to distinguish the hype from the genuine developments and to examine some of the hard decisions that need to be taken. Several of the key ethical issues associated with stem cell research have been considered in posts about other programmes (see for example Are hybrid embryos an ethical step too far? – The Big Questions and Bioethics Briefing – Stem cells). This episode, however, is particularly useful for consideration of two issues:

  • Public understanding of science and the management of expectations
  • Clinical trials and “therapeutic misconception”

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An epic journey – Do You Want To Live Forever?

February 12, 2008

The ethics of life extension is an immensely complex topic. It touches on a number of social and political issues, though also philosophical and metaphysical perspectives, and draws us into a consequentialist calculus over the rights of people living now and those of future, unborn generations. A number of these issues are explored in the thought provoking Channel 4 documentary Do You Want To Live Forever?, in which writer and director Christopher Sykes, follows biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey in his quest to be the man that conquers ageing.

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Biogerontologist, Aubrey de Grey (from Do You Want To Live Forever?, Channel 4, February 3rd 2007, 18.35)

In addition to extensive footage with de Grey himself, the programme also features a ‘cast of characters’, from de Grey’s mother Camilla, to award winning physicist Freeman Dyson. In interviewing each of these characters Do You Want To Live Forever? offers a number of different perspectives on the ethics of life-extension research. Although the views of different commentators are spread throughout the 75minute programme, they provide an excellent source of capsule quotes which articulate many of the ethical arguments and issues in the debate around life-extension. Read the rest of this entry »


Fat Family Tree

June 7, 2013

Here at BioethicsBytes we aim to recommend good clips from TV programmes that might be useful in discussing ethics associated with biology and biomedicine. We don’t usually have time to offer any warnings against watching particular programmes. One very disappointing recent pseudo-documentary was Channel 4’s offering Fat Family Tree (First broadcast 23rd May 2013, TRILT code: 03163CBC). We had been promised insight into “whether unlocking the secrets of families’ genes can help provide an answer to weight problems” with the participants taking “a unique DNA test to find out if the genes they have inherited could help explain their weight problems”.

Unfortunately, the reality was very superficial. Luckily for me, Linda Wijlaars over at the Progress Educational Trust’s BioNews has already written an excellent harsh-but-fair critique of the show.


Private Practice: Acting ethically at the Wellness Center?

July 1, 2009

(Warning – contains plot spoilers!) Private Practice is a spin-off from Seattle hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy in which Dr Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) moves from Seattle Grace to join the staff of the Ocean Wellness Center in Los Angeles.

I have to admit that I tired of Grey’s Anatomy during Season 1 and although I was aware it has spawned another series I had no desire to watch. All this changed, however, following an excellent talk on the programme, given by Dublin Doctor Audrey Dillon at the 4th Postgraduate Bioethics Conference (Belfast, June 2009).

The writers of Private Practice, headed by Shonda Rhimes, have made a conscious decision to incorporate ethical issues into the storylines (see ‘Private Practice’ explores bioethics questions). This means, therefore, that the series may well throw up some interesting case studies as discussion starters.

At the time of writing, Living TV (UK) has just started transmission of Season 2 (see here for Episode guide). A Family Thing, the first programme of the series, was aired on 25th June 2009 (TRILT code 00FC042B). True to promise, it contained two subplots featuring ethical dilemmas.

Saviour siblings – a donor by design?

In the first (starting 7 minutes in), Molly and Eric Madison present at the clinic demanding that the staff deliver their baby daughter that day, despite the fact that she is only 27 weeks gestation. The girl, it transpires, has been conceived following Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, to be a ‘saviour sibling’ for her older brother, Jason.  The boy has leukaemia and has had his own bone marrow wiped out in preparation for a transplant from a donor who has now fallen unwell with pneumonia. He is therefore immunocompromised and urgently needs umbilical stem cells courtesy of the new child.

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My Shocking Story – Human Face Transplant

November 13, 2008

At a military hospital in China, Professor Guo Shuzhong is striving to advance the necessary medical techniques to complete a full face transplant for one of his patients. Celebrated as one of China’s best plastic surgeons, Professor Guo is anxious to improve the lives of people with severe facial disfigurements.

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Professor Guo: "We Chinese pay a lot of attention to the face, if you have a problem with the face and go outside, a lot of people stare at you, look at you, you feel very uncomfortable... Some people are that disfigured that they do not look like human beings anymore. Some people in China call then ghosts. These patients are discriminated against in society; I deal with them every day and understand their suffering. They are in a great deal of pain. They do not expect to be beautiful after surgery, they just want a normal life again" (00:02:27 - 00:04:52).

Professor Guo believes that the only way to improve the life of his patients is to build on the well established techniques of plastic surgery and move towards partial and full face transplants. In November 2005 Isabelle Dinoire underwent the world’s first partial face transplant in France (00:12:34 – 00:13:32) (See Face transplant – Horizon). Professor Guo is encouraged by this and hopes that his research can build on the medical breakthrough.  

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Drug Trials – The Dark Side

August 6, 2008
BBC Reporter Paul Kenyon - speaking to patients outside an Indian hospital

BBC Reporter Paul Kenyon – speaking to patients outside an Indian hospital

A documentary in BBC2’s This World strand, Drug Trials: The Dark Side investigated the murky world of clinical trials carried our in the developing world. Reporter Paul Kenyon travels to India in an attempt to uncover the actions of some of the world’s biggest drug companies. Through a series of interviews with both doctors and patients, it reveals some discrepancies with regards to clinical trial protocol. This raises five main ethical issues:

  • Patient recruitment onto drug trials
  • Informed consent
  • The trust between a doctor and their patient
  • The methodology implemented during a drug trial
  • The cost and accessibility of drugs in the developing world

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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 »


Genetic testing: would you want to know? – The Killer in Me

December 29, 2007

The Killer in Me illustrates just how far genetic testing for disease has developed. Testing for conditions caused by mutation in a single gene has been possible for some while, and examples have been considered previously in relation to programmes in the Bitter Inheritance series, e.g. Huntington’s disease (Episode 5) and Gorlin Syndrome (Episode 4). In The Killer in Me, four celebrities agree to undergo pioneering genetic tests for conditions that are under the influence of several different genes and environmental factors, such as diet. It is promised that the battery of tests will indicate their potential risk, i.e. their predisposition, to several common diseases, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. The tests are supervised by Paul Jenkins, a Senior Clinical Researcher at Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and the co-founder of the company ‘Genetic Health’. As he explains, “We know the environmental influences that can predispose to disease, now we are able for the first time to start to determine your genetic predisposition to those diseases” (00:01:39).

The decisions about which tests to take, and the celebrities’ responses to the results of those tests, offer insights into the ethical dilemmas posed by screening. GMTV presenter Fiona Philips re-examines her mother’s past medical history, which included both breast cancer and Alzheimer’s which unfortunately led to her death. She reflects on the terrible ordeal her mother suffered for eight years, and wonders what actions she would take if the test presented that she was at high risk of Alzheimer’s (00:02:49-00:05:17 and 00:17:50-00:19:10*). Read the rest of this entry »