- Drug Discovery: The Next Generation
The award-winning ‘Swab and Send’ project is mobilising children and adults alike in the search for new antibiotics.
Although drug discovery is now often based on the chemical design of agents to inhibit specific targets, the natural world may still be an important source of antimicrobials – only a tiny fraction of the world’s bacterial species have been analysed for potentially useful products. In the ‘Swab and Send’ citizen-science, crowd-funded public engagement project, Dr Adam Roberts is encouraging school children and other interested parties to send local environmental samples to his lab for analysis for antimicrobial activity – thereby both raising awareness of antibiotic resistance and contributing to the hunt for much-needed new antibiotics.
The natural world has been the source of almost all our most important antibiotics. As part of a wider aim to interest young people in the issue of antibiotic resistance, Dr Roberts hit upon the idea of getting them actively involved. After school visits, he distributed simple kits enabling them to swab local environments and send back samples (with clear guidelines on environments that shouldn’t be sampled for hygiene reasons…).
The project has been enthusiastically received, with some 1000 samples returned to date. Several samples have turned out to have antimicrobial activity, and a range of known antibiotic-producing species have been identified. Initially funded through UCL’s crowd-funding platform Hubbub, the project received further support from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council for follow-up work on the samples. Dr Roberts was also awarded the Microbiology Society’s 2015 Outreach Prize for the ‘Swab and Send’ project.
‘Swab and Send’ is just one of a range of a range of public engagement activities that Dr Roberts has been involved in. He has also given pub talks in the Pint of Science festival and organised the first screening in London of Resistance, a film examining the potentially devastating impact of antimicrobial resistance, which was followed by a panel discussion. He is also working with the Wellcome Trust on public engagement projects, including a graphic novel, Surgeon X, exploring the consequences of catastrophic antimicrobial resistance.
In 2015, Dr Roberts was appointed as an advisor to the £10m Longitude Prize competition. The prize will be awarded to the developers of a point-of-care diagnostic test to guide antibiotic use.
- Outreach with the i-Sense Team
A team from the i-sense programme organised a range of fun and engaging activities for children and families attending the Spark Festival London in autumn 2015.
The i-sense programme, led by Professor Rachel McKendry, is developing a range of tools to identify the earliest stages of infectious disease outbreaks – spanning mobile phone-connected tests, apps, dashboards, innovative nano-sensors and advanced modelling to analyse the millions of symptoms reported each day on search engines and social media. Public engagement is integral to the progamme’s work, as illustrated by its presence at the 2015 Spark Festival London.
Coordinated by Kailey Nolan, the i-sense team organised a range of stimulating an interactive activities for children and families. As well as encounters with a cuddly E. coli and a giant antibiotic molecule, children had a chance to play a ‘match the antigen and antibody’ puzzle game and try out some of i-sense’s mobile phone-connected tests.
Visitors also had an opportunity to analyse mock samples for three alarming sounding infectious diseases – ‘snifflepops’, ‘winter bug’ and ‘armageddovirus’. Pinning their results onto a map of London (where they lived) and a world map (where they had travelled), they could see how a mobile phone-based approach could rapidly pick up outbreak hotspots. The crowds were also ‘infected’ by way of stickers to show quickly a disease could spread in a pandemic situation.
The Spark Festival London was organised by UCL Public and Cultural Engagement and UCL Engineering and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The i-sense team has plans to extend its outreach work, for example by showcasing at events such as the Green Man Festival.
The team also undertakes school visits, introducing sixth-formers to some of the technologies used in diagnostic tests and encouraging discussion of the wider ethical and practical issues surrounding i-sense research, such as the use of home-based diagnostics and data privacy. A ‘wall of voices’, showing some of the opinions typically expressed, is proving an effective way to get discussions going.
As part of its commitment to public engagement, the i-sense programme makes funds available to support and train team members keen to undertake public outreach work.
Early in 2016, i-sense led the Rosalind Franklin Appathon - an app competition to empower and recognise women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine). The competition recognised newly created apps to support women in STEMM as well as women in STEMM who have developed pioneering apps. The winning apps included a gaming app featuring STEMM heroines for children, a networking app to improve diversity of speakers at conferences, an online clinical care pathway for Chlamydia, and an app to help boost social interaction and language abilities in autistic children.
Furthermore, the programme has a core workstream on end-user adoption, focusing on engagement with the professional communities such as clinicians, other healthcare professionals, industry, public health bodies and policy-makers who could take advantage of the tools and methodologies being developed by i-sense. A key priority is to ensure that technological developments are shaped by user needs.