Archives for category: Science

‘A true tale of love, death and DNA’


I saw this affecting work last night at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, North London. The Penny Dreadful production is currently on a UK National tour. The play is a profoundly thought-provoking piece, which directly challenges us to consider issues around mortality, immortality, and the ultimate question of what happens to us when we die.

Do we cease to be at that point?

The Henrietta Lack story encourages a consideration of this question. Lacks died as a result of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. However, the cells from her aggressive cancer, known as HeLa and which contain all the DNA that constituted Lack’s genetic make-up, continue to survive and to replicate in laboratory conditions, producing the first ever ‘immortal cell line’. Despite the dubious ethical issues that surround the original procurement of Lack’s cells (her children were never told, and Lack’s cells were public property until 2013), research based on HeLa has been directly responsible for the development of treatments for conditions such as AIDs, cancer, cystic fibrosis and vaccines, and many more. HeLa cells have also provided the foundation for mapping the human genome.

How To Be Immortal interweaves three true stories: Henrietta Lack’s own story and that of Dr Gey and his wife who ‘discovered’ HeLa in 1951, the story that Lack’s daughter Deborah (1996) was born into (she was a baby when her mother died) but only discovered later in life, and the contemporary narrative of Rosa and Mick. Mick, similar Lack, also has a rare and aggressive type of cancer, from which he dies. The issue of research, using cells from his tumour – this time with consent – is presented to the distraught Rosa. She agrees, and the outcome leads to a healing of sorts. Deborah also seems to experience a coming-to-terms with her mother’s death, and with its aftermath

I applaud the blend of science and of the essence of humanness, particularly its essential vulnerability, that How To Be Immortal successfully balances to create a living performance that raises questions it does not necessarily set out to answer. It is our job, the audience, to consider what has been presented to us:

Who and what are we, and does our ‘make-up’ extend beyond our DNA?

When we die, what do we leave behind? A contribution to some genetic pool, or memories, that may only remain until the death of the last remembering person?

Unanswerable questions, perhaps, but worthy of reflection…

I am so looking forward to this upcoming conference in Cheltenham November 23-24 (
Themed ‘Voice’, the conference promises to encompass ‘a mosaic of the subjective, individually complex and disparate voices that resonate within medicine’. Speakers include the writer Lionel Shriver, the psychologist Richard Bentall, the composer Eduardo Mirando who works at the crossroads between medicine and science, the poet and philosopher Raymond Tallis, poets Jo Shapcott, Andrew Motion and Jackie Kay, the artist Bobby Baker… to name but a few in a very intriguing, diverse, eclectic and fascinating programme.

It promises to be great…


I have come across two events over the past week where links between poetry and science or medicine have been initiated.
Firstly, appropriately at Keats House, I attended the launch of a collaborative project between poets and scientists ( Eleven poets teamed with 11 scientists to create poetry that reflected on the life/work of the latter. At the event, both the poet and the scientist of each ‘team’ spoke about their respective experiences throughout the collaboration. The resulting poetry is wonderfully rich and evocative. It was also very moving to hear the scientists speak, and so poetically, of what the experience meant to them.

Secondly, today I came across a piece in a recent New Yorker ( on poetry and medicine. John F. Martin is a ‘cardiologist, transatlantic academic, specialist in gene therapies for treating heart attacks, clinician, and published poet.’ I guess the ‘poet’ element is last mentioned in order to heighten the impact of this apparent incongruity. There have indeed been clinicians, such as William Carlos Williams and Dannie Abse, who were also published poets. But they are in the minority. I have not yet come across Martin’s poetry, but I will now seek it out.
Apart from his own poetry, Martin has also initiated an annual poetry competition for medical students both at UCL and at Yale School of Medicine. This project arose out of his concerns that ‘medical students are at risk of becoming “intellectually brutalized”…conditioned to focus upon the microscopic at the expense of the holistic.’
The competition is now in its third year, and I have been reading the work of past winners. Impressive. My favourite is Encounters with Death, by Kevin Woo (Yale University, 2012):

‘In the First Year
I gazed upon a body overtaken by Death
The fingers, withered and cold
Eyes as gray as the stainless steel casket
Call her Cadaver, they explained, and learn
Her lines, her edges…
…And in the First Year, I dissected Death.’

There is a separate stanza for each year, of four.

‘In the Second Year
I memorized the signs of Death
A lung, scarred and emptied
The nodes of Osler revealing infection within…
…And in the Second Year, I pathologized Death.’

‘In the Third Year
I saved a man from Death
His heart, so worn and weary
That it had surrendered its rhythm…
…And in the Third Year, I conquered Death.’

‘In the Fourth Year
I had a conversation with Death
Of what do you remain afraid, Death asked
That you might know Death only by dissection, as pathology, to be conquered?
And I learned that Death
Was a companion along the journey of humanity
Along which we travel
I smiled, because I understood
At last
And in Fourth Year, I accepted Death.’

A most impressive journey in just 4 years. For most of us it takes a lifetime, if we do even manage to arrive.


This was the question posed at Cafe Scientifique, at The Royal Society tonight.

The speaker was Dr Matthew Piper, from the Institute of Healthy Ageing, University College London, who initially spoke about his research, which was then followed by an open discussion with questions.

Dr Piper’s research focuses primarily on the effects of nutrition on healthy ageing. First, he gave us a very comprehensive, and understandable, overview of where the hypothesis for his work originated.

The process of biological ageing appears to result from the (complex) interaction between our genes and our environment. Manipulation of environmental factors, although intuitive (for example lifestyle and cigarette smoking), does not appear to consistently influence longevity, and it seems increasingly more likely that genetic predisposition is the key. In 1977, a study in worms first demonstrated that a specific genetic mutation increased lifespan.

Research since then suggests that levels of insulin signalling seem to influence the process of ageing. The most accessible and realistic way of advantageously influencing these levels is through dietary intervention, specifically caloric restriction (it also appears that protein restriction is beneficial, but this may be specific to some amino acids, the details of which are currently unclear). Thus diets, such as the currently popular 5/2 diet (five days normal eating, two days restricted eating/fasting) that cut back significantly on caloric intake appear to turn off pathways when you do not need them (this applies to adults only, not children). A small amount of nutrients then appears to maximise the efficiency of the signalling pathways, without overloading them.

This, my reductionist summary, appears to be the scientific basis to current research that explores the biological causes of ageing, rather than ageing itself. The rationale appears to be that an understanding of the biology will help, not the symptoms of ageing per se, but the illnesses that partly, but not inevitably, define the process.

The science is fascinating, and I suspect I was not alone in the audience as I considered what I can do to positively influence my own ageing process…

However, I do have an issue with the medicalisation of ageing. To me, it is a natural and inevitable part of living beyond a certain biological age. Tonight I was confused at times as to whether we were talking about longevity (and I am not convinced of the value of this) or about ultimately decreasing age-related morbidity. Little was mentioned about quality of life.

I also worry that, given the fact that the elderly often feel invisible and neglected in society today, turning our attention to increasing lifespan may distract us from the non-medical issues that face our ageing population, such as isolation and social vulnerability (

My question following tonight’s most fascinating discussion is not whether growing old is an illness. Instead, I turn to the issue of increasing our lifespan, and question why that might be a good thing…