A good week

nb: this will the last burble of the academic year 2014-15 – the summer holidays are nigh and I want to think about anything other than teaching for at least 6 weeks. But it’s nice to end the summer term on a high note and I’m going to tell you about my 15 minutes of fame.

It’s been a good week.

I started with the glorious weather last weekend that finally enabled us to dig out the water slide and set our sons loose on it. As you can see, George is very happy.


I bought a £2 scratch card that had a £5 prize.

We took our first honey harvest of the year.

And then there was this.


I won’t bore you with details of the process, other than to say that it was very thorough. But, for the final burble of the academic year 2014-2015, I thought I’d tell you about the lesson the judges from the Society of Biology observed.

Year 13. Gene Therapy.

As always, when originally planning this lesson (it’s been in the files for about 4 years), I try to think how to make the students do all the work. Or, rather, how to engage them, make them think, and ensure effective learning. The idea is very simple. We start by covering the actual principle of gene therapy very quickly. Broken gene = broken protein = disease. Insert working gene = working protein = cure. But I want them to get a much fuller appreciation of what the process might involve.

So I divided them into teams of 4 and asked them to imagine that they were working on the development team at Glaxo-Smithkline – or possibly setting up a Young Enterprise Team, depending on the scale of their ambition. Gene therapy is on the research agenda and they’ve been asked to identify a potential genetic disease for gene therapy development. I give them a list of 6 different genetic diseases and ask them to carry out the research that will enable them to identify the most likely contender for successful gene therapy.

Gene Therapy revised 2015

At this point, it’s very important to clarify the rules. They must NOT go away and enter a search for “Cystic Fibrosis, gene therapy” into Google. They’re researching the disease itself, not gene therapy, and using that information to make their own decisions as to whether it’s worth investing zillions of dollars of development money into. They will need to consider lots of different criteria in order to justify their decision.

Now, if your lesson is being observed as part of deciding the Biology Teacher of the Year award, you obviously want to choose a goodie, and this particular example has always proved popular and successful in the past. It has everything I like in a lesson – challenge, interest, relevance, independent team learning and the chance for me to make a coffee and put my feet up catch up with vital administration. Nonetheless – and this is always a good reason to welcome lesson observation – I went away and updated/tightened up the instructions. In addition, I changed some of my original 6 diseases to include conditions currently being researched.

The girls were suitably and predictably brilliant. The judges were great too. There wasn’t any loitering in the back of the lab, doodling on note pads, they both immediately joined a group so that they could talk to the girls and see what was going on. After about 10 minutes of initial brain- storming they had all established a list of criteria to look for in their disease of choice. It needed to be:

  • common enough to make it commercially viable (and common in the developed world, where it could be afforded)
  • it needed to be a recessive condition so that the introduction of a functioning allele could make a difference
  • the affected gene and its associated protein needed to be known and the mechanism fully understood
  • and there needed to be a plausible way of getting at the affected cells.

At this point, they headed off to the IT rooms (pre-booked) and the judges dutifully trotted after them. I took the chance to make a coffee and put my feet up catch up with vital administration.

40 minutes later they were back.

It’s interesting how they divide the jobs up. One team decided to allocate a disease per person. The other team worked through the diseases in order, but with each person looking for a specific feature of each disease. Either way, it worked.

So, discussion time. Are there any diseases that they’ve managed to eliminate as possibilities?

Haemophilia is always one of the first to go. Why? Well, there’s a perfectly effective treatment so it’s hard to justify the cost. Plus, they add, completely straight faced, it only affects men, so why bother? Ah, the joys of teaching in a girls’ school!

Von Hippel-Lindau disease is also easy to eliminate (always good to include some diseases they haven’t heard of – this one sounds intriguing and adds a layer of interest to the research). It’s a truly horrendous condition, but it affects every single one of the 50,000,000,000,000 cells in the body – utterly impossible to deliver a working gene on that scale. Plus it’s thankfully very rare – so, brutal economic reality intruding, you’d never recover your research costs.

Parkinson’s disease raises interesting debate because it’s not a genetic disease. You don’t inherit it. There’s no obvious gene to correct. It’s caused by a specific set of brain cells dying (cells in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra) that deprive the brain of its ability to make the vital neurotransmitter dopamine. For all these reasons, they dismiss Parkinsons as a possible candidate for gene therapy. They do recognise, however, the vast and increasing market available for a successful treatment.

So, the thoughtful reader might enquire, why did I put Parkinson’s on the list at all? Aha, replies the faithful burbler, because there is a gene therapy for this disease currently being researched by a company called Oxford Biomedica (who are also working on Stargardt disease). They’re obviously chasing the potential billions in revenue, but how would this actually work? The students get there quicker than I thought they might – could you put Dopamine gene(s) into some other brain cells, so the ability to synthesize dopamine is restored?


OK, what about the other options? What did they decide for themselves?

Inevitably, cystic fibrosis is everyone’s favourite. It fulfils all the criteria for potential gene therapy. It’s common, particularly in the developed world. It’s recessive. The relevant protein and its mechanism are well understood. Best of all, the cells are readily accessible – lining the airways of the lungs, they are actually in contact with the outside world, so it’s very easy to deliver your treatment, whatever form it takes, to the very cells that need it.

Which is why, of course, everyone has been chasing cystic fibrosis gene therapy for 20 years or more.

And, as a sobering return to reality, in all that time, and despite the billions spent and the careers of brilliant people dedicated to the research, there is still no gene therapy treatment for any genetic disease.

Thank you very much to everyone who has been following my blog. I hope you’ve found it interesting and, if a biology teacher, useful. I plan to be back in the autumn with more of the same. Have a fantastic summer. I’ll leave you with some photos of the Biological Cakes that the Year 12s have been making. Can you guess what they all are?

IMG_0642 IMG_0643 IMG_0645 IMG_0648 IMG_0649 IMG_0634


2 thoughts on “A good week

  1. ONeill, Cathy (OXF) Staff

    You star.

    When for our celebration and shall we invite anyone else? I will get the bubbly.


    Cathy O’Neill
    Head of Careers and Coordinator of Lifelong Learning
    Oxford High School GDST
    Belbroughton Road |Oxford |OX2 6XA
    01865 478625

    Liked by 1 person


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