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21/10/2014

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Stem cell vision

Where you see it is important, says Dan Richards

Stem cells: a vision of the future is a 70-minute documentary which aims to inform and excite all those interested in why, and how, stem cells are central to the body's growth, maintenance and repair. It’s followed by a question-and-answer session with a leading stem cell scientist.

Produced through collaboration between scientists and filmmakers, with support from the Wellcome Trust, the film begins with acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood engaged in informal chit-chat with a University of Cambridge academic in a bustling cafe. She sets the scene nicely with the question, ‘Could you grow back parts of people or replace diseased bits with new bits?’ The film goes on to state exactly what a stem cell is and charts the history and evolution of the field. It’s illustrated along the way with beautifully pencil-drawn moving diagrams and just enough patient case-studies to make it relevant to everyday life.

Real-life research

At its core, this film is about scientists and clinicians and their fight to push through exciting new treatments in the face of a shifting balance between regulation and progress. It shows how in the last ten years, scientific advances have been translated into the clinic at an exceptional pace and nicely depicts how the field has moved on from using controversial embryonic stem cells with developments in adult stem cell research. Scientists and clinicians are shown telling their stories, working in the lab, treating patients and patting each others’ backs at international scientific conferences.

Does this film provide an insight into real-life research? I think it does. What it doesn't do is add hype to future potential, but gives frank and balanced accounts of where it could be going, with only Margaret Atwood eluding to a world of immortals at the end of the film.

Better venue

This is a form of engagement that works very well with a particular type of public. The organisers have found and listened to an audience who want more detail than typically broadcast in TV science documentaries. The event is promoted as suitable for ‘adults with a general interest in science’, and I think a less expert audience could cope with it. The question-and-answer session with Professor Pete Coffey from the London School to Cure Blindness, who also featured in film, provided everyone with a good opportunity to have their questions answered.

However, given the venue – a hard-to-find UCL lecture theatre – it seemed to attract a slightly more knowledgeable group than was necessarily intended. Even with a biomedical background, I found some of the high-level discussion challenging to follow. It created an atmosphere where non-scientists asking basic questions about stem cells felt the need to apologise for not being scientists.

Perhaps moving to a more popular venue may have opened it up to a general audience.

However, there are few events on offer for those with a hunger to get more detail about such broad scientific subjects and provide the opportunity to question leading scientists. This format differentiates itself nicely from the more popular Cafe Scientifiques and SciBars out there, which can sometimes gloss over that detail.

Use in schools


I was pleased to hear that the film is being released in DVD format for Key Stage 3 – 4 students. With appropriate lesson plans it will certainly inform discussion in schools about the application of stem cell therapies.

I did come away with a renewed sense of wonder for stem cell treatments, but perhaps a secondary school audience would benefit more than an already knowledgeable public from this expensive style of engagement. 

Stem Cells: A Vision of the Future is currently touring the UK, to find out more visit www.stemcellsvision.co.uk.

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Dan Richards
Dan Richards is National Science & Engineering Week Project Manager at the British Science Association
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