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September 14, 2011

The quest for eternal youth: Atwood v. Smith

by David Kent

A prize-winning author sits down in an Edinburgh pub across from a world famous stem cell biologist. Together they begin to ponder mankind’s desire for eternal youth. Though it may sound like the first lines of a joke, it is the opening scene of a documentary film, supported by the UK’s Wellcome Trust. Oddly enough, this film represented a collision of my seemingly polar worlds.

As many of my readers know, I hold a Genetics/English degree, and this opening scene was a bizarre blending of both -– Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood vs. Cambridge stem cell biologist Austin Smith. As their conversation progresses throughout the film, one cannot help but become acutely aware of the highly relevant casting choices -– Atwood often writes about the potential consequences of science/technology (e.g.: Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood) and Smith is at the very leading edge of some of the most exciting advances in pluripotent stem cell biology. 

This full length feature, entitled Stem Cell Revolutions:
A Vision of the Future, is a snapshot of the current state of stem cell technologies and offers some insight into how we arrived here and where the field might take us. It was created by science producer Clare Blackburn and Director/Producer Amy Hardie, the same filmmakers that created the acclaimed Eurostemcell short films: A stem cell story, Conversations: ethics, science, stem cells, Cell Culture, Dolly and beyond.

Full of amazing artistic interpretations of stem cell biology and physiology as well as interviews with some of the most influential stem cell biologists in the world (e.g.: Irving Weissman, Connie Eaves, Howard Green), this film captures the enthusiasm and potential of stem cell therapies but also underscores the very early stages at which many of these therapies currently sit. 

Last month I had a chance to chat with production manager Katia Hervy and was given the opportunity to watch an early version of the film. Ms. Hervy emphasized how excited the scientists involved in the film were throughout the project and how positive the responses in the UK were to initial screenings in schools and in public settings. While teachers valued the educational component and the integration of potential clinical applications, students and members of the public were appreciative of the respect for the viewer that was awarded by not “dumbing the science down”. Specifically, the descriptions and discussion of induced pluripotent stem cells were found to be highly engaging.

In concert with this, Ms. Hervy noted that she and the filmmakers were particularly struck by the high level of questions and comments they received from audiences, especially from young high school students. It seems that stem cells and regenerative medicine are inspiring a generation to stand up and pay attention. The idea that we might fix our bodies with our own cells, or even the cells of others, will (and should) inspire much discussion around the ethics and philosophy behind the pursuit of knowledge and therapy in this area.

Interestingly, my own interactions with Professor Smith suggest quite strongly that he is not afraid of an academic argument (quite the opposite in fact); however, in his conversation with Atwood he appears quite guarded. Atwood tries to pin down Smith on a number of key philosophical questions about the field, but his responses are carefully crafted not to offend. Perhaps this derives from an all too common fear of scientists being misrepresented in the media (a chronic problem for the whole field), but perhaps it also represents the lack of engagement that scientists have with issues of the social and/or ethical ilk.

This movie does not mark the end of such projects for Dr. Blackburn and Ms. Hardie, who are planning more films, including one that will unravel the mysteries of transcription factor networks. For now though, consider checking out the trailer (above) to get a sense of what they’ve been doing – enjoy!



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