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Views & Reviews Review of the Week

The appliance of science

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 29 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1713
  1. Beth Hibbert, year 11, Latymer School, London
  1. brapple_berrie{at}

    Dramatising the issues concerning clinical trials can switch a new generation on to their benefits, finds Beth Hibbert

    I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at a side room of the Royal Albert Hall last Sunday. I was seeing a production by the Y Touring theatre company, a group set up by Central YMCA in 1989 to explore the often difficult issues in the areas of health, sex education, and the ethics of science in an interesting and interactive way. Being a massive fan of drama myself, but not quite bursting with enthusiasm for science, I was dubious about how the two subjects could join together and, well, work.

    Y Touring have several plays touring UK schools at the moment. I saw Starfish, by Judith Johnson, which sets out to explore the issues surrounding clinical trials. I knew nothing about clinical trials when I arrived, and judging by the questions and responses during the discussion after the performance neither did most of the other teenagers in the audience, which suggests that Johnson has hit on a good idea for a play.

    The story is narrated by Adrian, who tells us about his son Michael, a design and technology teacher who contracts bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Desperate for a cure, Adrian discovers a potential treatment on the internet but cannot get hold of it because it hasn’t been put through clinical trials. Alongside this storyline runs another about Shannon, one of Michael’s students, who has social phobia. Shannon is given the opportunity to participate in two clinical trials: one for a confidence boosting nasal spray, which she refuses; and one to compare virtual counselling with cognitive behaviour therapy, which she accepts.

    Starfish was fascinating; there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t intrigued. The quality of acting from all four characters was superb. Most outstanding was Max Saunders-Singer, who played Michael. Lester Firkins, whose son has BSE and on whom the character of Adrian was based, told me after the play how highly convincing the performances were.

    An educational play is a good way to get teenagers interested in the ethics of research. Taking my GCSEs this year, I’m sure the knowledge I’ve gained from watching Starfish will come in use, and my friend felt the same way about her A level course. The only improvement would have been to see an example of a complete, successful clinical trial—we only heard about people’s involvement in ongoing trials and saw no outcome, and I’m not sure the outlook was positive.

    After the performance came a live debate, which involved seriously cool, interactive, handheld remote control devices. We used the handsets to answer questions and vote on the outcome of a court case that was based on a clinical trial—deciding whether 19 year old Holly’s father should be allowed to give her the same drug that Adrian could not give Michael in the play. It was interesting to see everyone’s responses displayed on the giant MacBook on stage. The friendly host, Steve, made sure that adults and children from the audience felt confident enough to contribute to the discussion.

    At school we learn about science in such a vague way that it is hard to imagine how what we are taught can be applied to the world of work. Looking at how drugs are tested in clinical trials and how they may become the subject of court cases allowed me to glimpse a few of the ways in which science is used in everyday life, not just in medicine but in research and law. I could almost understand why some people might want to make a career out of it.

    Firkins wants people to see the play so that if they are ever offered the chance to take part in a clinical trial they will know enough about them to make an informed decision. I knew absolutely nothing about clinical trials before seeing Starfish, and now I would definitely consider taking part in one. I believe that testing potential treatments is a good thing, as long as the risk of harm is low. It could lead to lifesaving treatment being made available to people like Michael.

    Starfish made me think about issues that would never normally cross my mind. It was entertaining and captivating in a way that made it hard to believe it was educational too.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1713


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