The iGEM competition is a lot more than just wet lab and modelling. With the rapid development in synthetic biology, the need for creating awareness on how it could potentially affect the society and environment is great. Human practices entails considering all the different aspects that is influenced by the new technology. These can include ethical, social, legal, and economical issues as well as concerns regarding biosafety.
In our project, we aimed to spread information about the applications of synthetic biology and its potential in helping solve some of the problems in the world. We did this by having lectures both at our own university for students and at Lund’s University for the public. We wanted to reach out and get people interested in the field and inspire to think outside the box by solving problems using applications no one thought imaginable, for example using baker's yeast for detection of lung cancer.
To further reach out and integrate human practices in the project, we developed a screening program for lung cancer, which involved working with the different criterias for screening programs, including biosafety, carry out discussions with scientists and physicians within the field, designing and producing a prototype and creating and spreading a survey concerning the public’s view on a potential screening program for lung cancer.
An important part of every iGEM project is to spread information about synthetic biology and its applications to the public. It is also important to reach out to the public and tell them about your own project and answer the questions that they might have and establish a dialogue. To do this we did some outreach to the university and the public through different channels and in different ways.
We wanted to make our whole university aware of the cool project that we were working on and therefore decided to spread information about iGEM and our BREATHtaking biosensor. We did this in two ways; by having a lunch lecture and and also making a mini series about the project in cooperation with Chalmers University of Technology.
The lunch lecture was about iGEM and our project and was conducted for Chalmers students, primarily biotechnology students. We answered questions and encouraged the students to get interested in synthetic biology, to support us and join the team next year.
Even though the lunch lecture was great, the team was not content with only reaching out to biotechnology students. Therefore we reached out to Chalmers Public Relations section and they made a mini series in three parts which they distributed on their Facebook page. This way, we reached a broader crowd, both within and outside the university. In the two first episodes we explain our project, our achievements and plan for the Jamboree in Boston. The last episode will be released after Boston, where the viewers will see how great the Jamboree in Boston was.
Lecture about synthetic biology with team iGEM Lund
We collaborated with team iGEM Lund and held a lecture about synthetic biology in Lund at Lunds University’s 350 year anniversary. The lecture was open for the public and the information was kept at a popular scientific level. The lecture started with the history of traditional genetic engineering and continued with the description of synthetic biology. When the audience understood the concept of synthetic biology, each iGEM team presented their own project and how they used synthetic biology.
The lecture continued with future applications of synthetic biology and the ethical aspects were discussed. Research and responsibility goes hand in hand and the main message of this part was that it is important to think and discuss ethical dilemmas and questions before conducting any experiment. Different views on different subjects were presented in a natural way to let the audience create their own opinion. The lecture ended with a talk about scientific communication; how the communication work between researchers and the public today and why it is important to establish such a conversation.
After the lecture, the audience had the possibility to talk with the speakers and either ask questions or discuss specific subjects. There were questions about the project and some discussion about ethics, showing that the audience got interested and started to form their own opinions.
Lung cancer survey
To further reach out to the public and to get their help when designing a screening program, we created a survey about lung cancer screening program. We wanted to see what the public thought about having regular examinations for lung cancer, similar to how we screen for breast cancer in Sweden. We also investigated if the public thought that the tax money should finance or subsidized these screenings. This survey was open for everyone to answer and spread via different communication channels. A few more results from the survey is presented in Integrated human practices, screening program.
We collaborated with iGEM Bilkent-UNAMBG and let them distribute the survey in their country to see if the results would differ between countries. The participation was good, with 605 and 268 participants in Sweden and Turkey respectively.
When asking the question: “If you would have been called for a free regular medical checkup (screening) for lung cancer every year, would you go?” both countries showed identical results, see Figure 1. The majority of the participants (89 %) in the survey would go to the medical check-up, showing a positive attitude for the screening program.
When asked the following question: “Do you think such a screening program should be totally financed or subsidized by the government?” the result showed that most of the participants think a lung cancer screening program should be either funded or subsidized by the government, seeFigure 2. The large difference between the countries is that most participants for Sweden think a subsidization would be the best while the majority from Turkey believe that the whole screening program should be financed by the government. Overall, there seems to be a positive attitude about setting up a lung screening program in both countries.
A vital part of working with the project and creating a screening program was to take the safety into consideration. It is important to ensure that neither patients, hospital nor lab workers would be exposed to any risks.
The first step was to make sure that neither patients or physicians would be in contact with the genetically modified yeast created in this project. If the risk of exposure is removed, it will also simplify the regulation issues. The exposure will be reduced using a prototype with a specific filter that will bind the VOCs when breathed on by the patient. This design allows the patient to breath into the prototype several times to increase the amount of VOCs trapped in the filter. The filter can then be sent to laboratory facilities where the VOCs are dissolved and exposed to the yeast to enable detection. See a more detailed description of the method in Integrated human practices, the prototype. With this design, the need to bring genetically modified yeast into a hospital environment is made redundant. In Sweden a specific approval is needed to be able to work with genetically modified organisms and it would be the most efficient to use laboratory facilities that already have this approval . Another benefit with this design is that there is absolutely no risk for patients to inhale the genetically modified yeast.
The second step was to ensure that the yeast used as a biosensor is in no way dangerous to the environment or to the people working with it in the laboratory facilities. Risk assessment of the procedures connected to the biosensor show the normal risk associated with working in a laboratory environment. With the right knowledge, correct safety clothing and precautions, the laboratory personnel should not be exposed to any harm. For more information regarding the safety, see Notebook, safety.
When working with genetically modified organisms it is important to consider the ethical aspects and acknowledge possible hazards for the environment. In this case, the yeast should be limited to the laboratory environment and not be spread or get in contact with nature.
-  Innesluten användning av genetiskt modifierade mikroorganismer (AFS 2011:2) [Internet]. Stockholm: Anna Middelman [cited 170920]. Available from: https://www.av.se/globalassets/filer/publikationer/foreskrifter/innesluten-anvandning-av-genetiskt-modifierade-mikroorganismer-afs2011-2.pdf.