Thursday 15th March 2018. A 4.45am alarm. Not being a natural “morning person” this wouldn’t normally give me cause to jump out of bed with any sense of urgency. But today is different. Today is one of my favourite days in the calendar. It’s BSGCT (@_BSGCT) public engagement day – the promise of captivating talks, hands on activities and stalls and a room full of engaged secondary school children wanting to learn about gene and cell therapies and genome editing. All buzz words, banded around the media on a weekly, sometime even daily basis. Now the experts are coming to town to give the real lowdown on these new technologies.
All this staged in the most wonderful of settings – the Museum of Natural History in Oxford (@morethanadodo), once again kindly providing us with a magical venue to run this event.
Two (strong) cups of tea later, and a quick dash around the suburbs of Cardiff and Newport to collect several bleary eyed members of my (@virustinkerer) team, and we are on the road and on course for our 8.30 am rendez vous. We arrive in good time to set up our “build a virus” stall and help set up the array of other interactive and colourful stalls, including DNA origami and DNA bracelet building. We are also joined by number of sponsor stands as well as the brilliant In2Science initiative (@In2ScienceUK), which BSGCT are proud to partner with to enable children from underprivileged backgrounds to experience work experience in a lab environment.
9.30 am. The buzz really begins, as hundreds of school children and members of the public arrive, in good time for the talks, at 10am. A sudden flurry of activity around our stalls, before we are ushered into the lecture theatre and the expert talks begin. I’ve been here before, so have a good idea of what to expect, though we have new speakers this year, and are experimenting with new technologies (live polling – the subject of many hours of “should we/shouldn’t we” “will it work/won’t it work” planning discussions in the run up to the event).
We begin with the always engaging Simon Waddington (UCL; @SimonWad) who introduces the audience to the concepts of gene therapy in his own captivating manner – through the medium of Hollywood blockbuster movies, and the portrayal of gene therapies (and accuracies/inaccuracies) therein. Next, another PED seasoned pro, Jo Mountford (Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service) introduces the concept of stem cell therapies, the potential and ethics surrounding embryonic stem cell based therapies, and how induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) may offer similar efficacy to embryonic stem cell based therapies, without the cloud of ethical issues surrounding them.
Finally, with bated breath, we unveil the technology…online dopoll voting around the rights and wrongs of gene and cell therapies. Will the wifi signal hold? Will the 3G signal be strong enough to allow enough people to vote? Will the website crash? Will all the teenagers have a mobile phone to vote with? (OK, admittedly we should all know that 100% of teenagers these days have a mobile!). Thankfully, everything held, and we generated some really interesting and useful data on perceptions of gene and cell therapies and what should/should not be allowed.
Our lunchtime slot allowed plenty of time for hands on activities – the stalls were super busy with children and members of the public making model viruses, learning how we can “train” viruses to treat serious disease, learning about DNA codes and making DNA bracelets. As always, we had many experts on hand for our ever popular “meet the scientist” sessions, where children get to suss out what it is really like being a scientist. This year, we were also joined for this by some industry based scientists also (from PsiOxus; @psioxus) so our “scientists in training” were able to get a flavour of life in both the academic and industrial setting.
After lunch, we were excited to welcome some BSGCT PED newbies to the stage! First up, Dr Jenny McIntosh (UCL) gave a great overview of the amazing success gene therapies are now achieving in the treatment of Haemophilia. The clinical data are so remarkable that it seems that we are able now to use the “c word” (cure) in this context. It appears the progress is clear that licensing and adoption as a first line therapy is inevitable within the next 5-10 years – at least in developed countries.
Next up, another BSGCT debutant – Dave Cole (Immunocore; @Immunocore), talking about how it is possible to harness the body’s own natural defence, T-cells, in the fight against cancer. Dave gave a brilliant overview of T-cell function, aided by willing volunteers, half a dozen laser pointers (mental note for next year: risk assessment for throwing laser pointers!), and a “spot the difference” competition to demonstrate how T-cells function to spot diseased or infected cells, and then how they can be taken from patients and genetically engineered to enhance their activities to help fight disease.
We then moved onto genome editing, and a two part session. First Patrick Harrison (University of Cork) gave us a great overview of the technology, and how it can be applied to diseases – and a pertinent example of the importance of base editing (Chicken DIP’EMS > chicken DIPPERS> chicken DIAPERS). This was followed by a discussion over the ethics of genome editing, led ably by Sandy Star and Jennifer Willows (Progress Educational Trust/bionews; @bionewsUK).
Our last (but far from least) talk of the day was from Adam Jones, a haemophilia patient and advocate for gene therapy, who gave an engaging, impassioned and often moving talk about life as a haemophilia patient, and the need for gene therapies in this area.
With a new found sense of confidence, we returned to our online voting system, rounding up with a second round of polling, and panel discussion around the results. It was interesting to see how opinions changed over the day, and tease out the reasons behind the change of opinions. The voting definitely added a new interactive dimension to the day, and it seems as though, much like VAR, the technology is here to stay!
All in all, a great day was had all round, and – much like the progress in the field we spent the day discussing, it really feels as though our Public Engagement Day goes from strength to strength each year. It was especially pleasing, as we were leaving, to hear the bright young school kids discussing real high level science and the ethics behind it! It was great to feel that we may have played a small role in shaping some future careers, and who knows, perhaps a future Nobel Prize winner or two! Roll on the #BSGCTPED 2019 event!