Students question top scientists

Resurrecting mammoths and the effect of water and oxygen in creating genetic mutations were among the topics raised by an audience of more than a hundred students from schools in Camden, Barnet and Kent when they questioned the Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt and his colleague Julie Cooper about science.

The discussion, chaired by the Guardian’s science correspondent Alok Jha, began with a question on how long it would take to develop nanorobots to attack cancer cells. Tim Hunt was sceptical. He argued that cancer cells were already attacked by chemotherapy treatments saying it would take a long time to develop a nanorobot capable of recognising a cancerous cell. He explained that cancers were caused when a person’s own cells begin to divide uncontrollably, making them very difficult to target. In response, another student asked if viruses could be used to attack cancers. Julie Cooper responded: “Possibly… why don’t you come and work for us and find out?”

The question of whether or not it would be possible to use the DNA of a woolly mammoth to grow a new animal prompted some disagreement and a long discussion.  Julie Cooper said it was not possible while Tim Hunt thought it might be possible if a piece of DNA of high enough quality was used and placed inside an elephant’s egg which had the nucleus removed. He concluded: “it would be very, very difficult but not impossible”.

“Which cancer is the most dangerous?” asked one student. “I’d recommend trying to avoid getting cancer in the first place,” said Tim Hunt. “Don’t smoke!” Tim Hunt went on to explain that mutations happen often in cells and are caused by environmental factors. He added that mutation was necessary for life on earth: “mutation got life out of the primordial swamp… without mutations” he explained, “there would be no humans and no music”. He told the audience two of the biggest causes of mutations were essential to the fabric of life: water and oxygen.

The discussion turned to stories in the newspapers read by some of the students about the daily reports of everyday items that are said to cause cancer or cure it. Alok Jha urged students to be cautious: “Always check the source of these stories” he said, “very often they are not what they seem.” He explained that the journal publishing the research should always be mentioned.   

Turning to the best ways to advance science, one questioner asked: “Is competition better than collaboration?” “Both have a place,” said Julie Cooper but collaboration is more important.” Tim Hunt agreed but added: “Fields where there is no competition can get lazy,” he said. “You want to be first.”

The discussion was organised by Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute at the Wellcome Trust in London. 

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