GEM Cells In Plasticine Stop-Motion

Communicating ideas in synthetic biology is often difficult, not only because public understanding of the field is limited but because the field is necessarily cross-disciplinary since it tries to apply genetic engineering techniques as new solutions to diverse array of different problems. When making an explanatory video, it is important to be aware of the public perception. For example, genetic engineering is often seen unfavorably with its reputation in genetically modified foodstuffs and fears over eugenics. Neuroscience can cause unease because brain tampering, even for medical purposes, sounds dangerous especially if the method in question seems opaque and amoral to the layman. Our aim in making this short video was to convey our project, in which we fuse these two controversial fields, in a simple and engaging way that does not skimp on the science to make it as translucent and informative as possible. We chose plasticine stop animation because of its simplistic, unassuming, fun feel.


Interviewing Top Scientists

We are in the process of putting together a documentary on 'neuro-genethics' which will appear on this website later this month. The narrator's script for our documentary can be found here. We also conducted three interviews as a part of our filming process, which have proved invaluable into informing and improving our project work. This documentary explores the views of both science-related professionals and non scientists on the neuroethics and feasibility of neuro-genetic engineering. We prepared a series of questions that targeted the ethical side of brain cell modification for t various purposes, focusing on Alzheimer’s disease, specifically, whether the alteration of native brain cells will prompt a change of ‘self hood’, and how much this kind of new technology can be trusted outside of science. We also examine the economics feasibility of distributing the treatment, looking at resource allocation, the cost of research for Alzheimer's and the cost-benefit of spending on the ageing population.

Professor John Powell - a Professor in Genetics in the Department of Neuroscience and Psychological Medicine at Kings College London. His research interests are in the application of human genetics to the study of neurological and psychiatric disorders; in schizophrenia and autism. Who is an expert in the field of Neuroscience has been instrumental in finding new candidate genes involved in Alzheimer’s disease. From the discussion with Professor Powell, we disussed the science behind genetically engineering microglia to degrade the Alymoid plaques in the brain. He also pointed out that reducing amyloid plaque density in Alzheimer’s patients will not help much to relieve or stall the progression of the disease. He mentions that it is morally wrong to publicise the plight of specific AD cases, in order o gather support for a new treatment, and that it is not entirely ethical to offer late- stage Alzheimer’s patients neuro-genetically engineered treatments, when they not have the presence of mind to understand what they are agreed to or rejecting. The method of our delivery is not entirely favourable in that to insert a new genetic information in a microglial chassis, we may need to perform a brain surgery and that might not be viable for Alzheimer’s patients and might be risky especially for old age patients. However he seemed to welcome the idea of having scientists come up with genetic treatments which could alter the way genes are turned on and off and use genetic engineering in the brain for the benefit of humankind. He thinks it is justifiable to change genetic information in brain to replace faulty genes or introduce new genes to treat currently incurable neurological disorders.

Professor Patrick Haggard - A prominent figure in neuroethical debate, Patrick Haggard is is a neuroscientist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Department of Psychology, University College London (UCL). His interests lie in voluntary action, and so the question of whether or not we have 'free will', as well as how the brain represents an individual's body within themselves, and so the question of selfhood.

Professor Patrick Haggard, who specializes in the neurophysiology of free will, met us on the 26th of July to discuss our project. During this meeting, we covered areas such as the uniqueness of our project and the ethical issues revolving around preventing degeneration and compromising identity. He emphasized how we would be changing the person as we would be changing the bits and pieces that are central to the person’s identity, the brain. We are working with biological circuits that are closely related to the humanity of the individual. It is completely different to genetic engineering hair or the kidneys. Click here to listen to the audio sample from the documentary.

Furthermore, he points out that our project targets on dementia rather than behavioral and movement disorders as do most current research does. With dementia, the goal is to restore the capacity to remember and process information. The outcome is intrinsically subjective. This is contrasted with treating movement disorders such as Parkinson’s with electrical stimulation. He warns us about the risks in our intervention. The main question that needs to be addressed is how much of an individual’s identity or memory would be comprised. He asks us whether we would be able to show people our treatment would not modify memories or interfere with central brain circuits that give us our identity.

Next, we discussed whether there would be any additional risks with using genetic engineering in the brain. Both these fields are of high risk, but Professor Haggard believes there is no additional risk from this overlap. He believes the risks with any intervening treatments in the brain are universal, such as pharmacological ones. Drugs, machinery or genetically modified cells all disturb the brain, therefore there should not be any additional concern when compared with other more conventional treatments.

Many people have ethical concerns about technology that prolongs people’s lives indefinitely, Professor Haggard is definitely one of them. He says that degeneration is a natural process and people ought to accept it. The ethics of moving towards ‘immortality’ is new and underdeveloped as modern medicine is still far from achieving ‘immortality’. He admits that he tolerates the natural degeneration of his body but he refuses to allow his mind to degenerate. The mind is so closely linked with the capacity to enhance the happiness of the people around us and ourselves. It is also the basis of our personality. The thought of losing one self and one’s memories is horrifying and tragic. Professor Haggard states that if modern medicine is truly moving towards granting immortality, it is correct how we chose to target a neurodegenerative disease.

Professor Stephen Hart - Stephen Hart works on gene therapy at Wolfson Centre for Gene Therapy of Childhood Disease, UCL. We contacting him for interview because we wanted to discuss methods of gene delivery to the brain that could be incorporated into the clinical theory behind our genetic circuit. By pure serendipity we found that he and his research team had developed a method of transfecting microglia in vivo using lipid-peptide nanocomplexes. Interestingly, this result of his was un-expected as his team had been trying to transfect cancerous cells in rat brains. Their unintended discovery is a great boon for our idea. It is a great example of how our synthetic neurobiological treatment could be brought to the clinic, and selectively target microglia and could be used to develop microglia as a chassis for gene and drug delivery.