Mixing with the media

Brian with Profs Chandran and Wilmut

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m just back from a press briefing in London, where we were unveiling an exciting new stem cell research programme. I’ve just realised that we’ve put a press embargo on until Monday, so this won’t be posted until Monday morning – otherwise I’ll be breaking our own embargo…..

The press briefing was held in the Science Media Centre  . The SMC plays a vital role in bringing scientists and the media together, to assist with the accuracy of reporting of scientific issues in the public eye. We’ve developed a very good relationship with them, having held several press conferences at the SMC offices over the years. They were having a frenetic time of it this morning – not only were they setting up our press conference, but they were also dealing with the story of Craig Ventner creating a ‘man-made’ bacterium, which was all over the papers (“Dr God creates artificial life in lab”, was the none-too subtle heading in my morning paper).

‘Dr God’ probably had an impact on the number of journalists in attendance, as many were still out and about following up other reporting angles, but we still managed to attract quite a few of the top science correspondents from TV and radio (BBC, Channel 4) newspapers (Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail) medical press (BMJ) as well as the Press Association (which ensures that the story will go out on the newswire).

By the time I arrived, two of the researchers involved in the project (Prof Siddarthan Chandran and Prof Ian Wilmut from Edinburgh University) were already there. It was straight into the press briefing, where Siddarthan led off by setting out the background to the research programme, for the assembled reporters. Recent advances in stem cell research mean that researchers are now able to model human MND in the lab. Siddarthan explained the promise that research using induced pluripotential stem cells holds for advancing our understanding of MND and for developing methods for the efficient screening potential therapeutic compounds. This is a field that is moving quickly – less than a couple of years ago, the idea that a skin cell could be turned back into a stem cell and then into a motor neuron, would have graced the pages of a Sci-Fi magazine rather than a medical journal.

Prof Ian Wilmut explained in more detail how the stem cells are created in the Edinburgh lab and I followed up by outlining how the other research teams in this initiative, led by Prof Chris Shaw (King’s College London) and Prof Tom Maniatis (Columbia University, New York) would analyse how the cells react under healthy conditions and also under conditions that mimic the damaging cellular environment that occurs in the brain and spine of people with MND. A key message that all three of us put across the importance of international collaboration – if we are going to crack this disease, we have to ensure that the best researchers in the world are working together on the big questions.

You could tell it was a collection of science reporters in the room by the high percentage of intelligent questions – not something you always get when discussing science with the media. Hopefully this press briefing will be the first of many as this and complementary MND research programmes around the world, start to gather pace.

PS – Monday morning. Quite a bit of press coverage, some accurate (well done The Scotsman!) some not quite on the button, but all helping to raise awareness of MND!

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