Soon after starting our project we came to the conclusion that it is of high importance to on the one hand promote our project to the public through many channels and on the other hand also to gain knowledge about certain aspects related to our project. Our promotion therefore involved a press release, which lead to numerous newspaper articles, radio interviews, a television report, several public lectures at schools and at university establishments, a postcard exchange involving a cooperation with several other German iGEM teams and a broad social media appearance.
To acquire more knowledge about aspects of our project, we had talks with experts of different fields, we visited the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, the 5th Information Day about Cancer and conducted a public survey.
In more detail, parts of our outreach were…
- The postcard campaign we started, that involves several other german teams.
- An info booth and two lectures during the NRW day, which celebrated the anniversary of our state’s founding, where we showed simple experiments to wake people’s interest in biology.
- Two radio interviews, one with our local campus radio station and one with the Deutschlandfunk, a nation-wide radio station.
- A TV report aired on three different TV stations.
- Several lectures at local schools in front of Senior students who focused on biology.
- The participation in the Heine Slam, a cross-faculty competition at the Heinrich-Heine-University, similar to poetry slam.
- Learning more about the actual research in Jülich.
- A visit at the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, including a tour through their facilities, and a telephone conversation with experts from the PEI.
- A public lecture at the “Haus der Universität”, where admission-free public lectures are held on a regular basis.
- We Skyped with a true expert for optogenetics and cancer.
- We attended the 5th Information Day about Cancer at the “Haus der Universität”, where we learned a lot about the progress that was made in cancer treatment therapy.
- We Skyped with a former iGEM member of Freiburg, who worked on AAVs in 2010.
- Talking to cancer patients gave us an impressive insight into a life with and the fight against cancer.
- A survey on the general acceptance for gene therapy.
Human Practice: Education in Public
Raising public awareness not only about our project, but also about synthetic biology in general was always of high importance for us. We thought that other German iGEM teams may share that thought, so we decided to develop a concept in order to raise public awareness and make it possible for the other teams to do so as well. But how do you do that?
The concept our team developed was rather simple yet convincing: Every participating team has to design a postcard with an interesting image which is related to their project on the front and a little information text about synthetic biology on the back; unifying the lore of synthetic biology with fascinating, eye-catching images. A batch of each team’s postcards is then exchanged between the participating teams and then distributed by them.
After we finished creating our concept, we contacted the other German iGEM teams and presented them our concept. It was received really well and seven teams (Aachen, Bielefeld, Bonn, Goettingen, Darmstadt, Hannover, Tübingen) decided to join us and design their own postcard. The postcards were exchanged and then distributed by each team at several events like the NRW day or our public lecture at the “Haus der Universität”. We hope that by combining stunning images with short texts about synthetic biology, we are able to get people interested in synthetic biology and maybe even the iGEM competition itself.
Public presentation about our project, iGEM and synthetic biology at the House of the University
Informing people about our project and raising awareness about synthetic biology, new methods of cancer treatment and iGEM in general has always been of high importance to us. Besides lectures at local high schools, several press publications, an info booth and a presentation at the NRW day, we also decided to hold a lecture at the “Haus der Universität”, where admission-free public lectures are held on a regular basis.
The lecture on the evening of the 11th of October was visited by a lot of people, more people than we expected to come. The audience were very diverse: There were Biology-Professors, Bachelor- and Master-Students, as well as pupils and other people, who are not connected to the field of the biological sciences at all.
We held a one-hour long presentation about iGEM, cancer itself, our project and our team and gave an outreach overview about what we already achieved and with whom we worked together to reach our goal.
Our aim was to inform people who are not in touch with biological science and research itself too, so we tried to keep it simple and deliver the information in a clear and easy understandable way.
To make sure that everyone in the audience would understand every detail of the presentation, we also gave a bit of basic information about the central dogma of molecular biology
(DNA → mRNA → Protein), the DNA and proteins itself and what they are made of, as well as optogenetics and its way of functioning.
At the end of the talk, we received many interesting questions and intellectual approaches. For example, someone asked us, when the therapy that we are developing could be established. We were very happy about this question, because it showed that there was a great public interest in our project.
Another spectator asked us about the applications of our therapy and to which forms and stages of cancer it could be applied. Theoretically, it could be applied at any stage and to any form of cancer.
Additionally, we got asked about whether we would apply a patent on our idea. Naturally, we will not, because the iGEM competition is not about making the biggest capital out of a project, but to promote science.
Many other questions were asked, the people were very interested and wanted to know much about us and our project.
After the presentation, there was a buffet in the foyer of the “Haus der Universität” for everyone who came. Every member of the team prepared something delicious to eat, so we had a big and tasty amount of food to offer. We also bought mineral water, apple juice and beer.
While eating and drinking, we and our guests had a very pleasant time chatting and answering more questions about us and our project.
The feedback that we got was mostly extremely positive: Even the ones not knowing anything about biology understood our talk and enjoyed it. We found out that many of our listeners were (former) cancer patients and therefore had a very personal tie to the topic and our project.
All in all, the evening was a giant success! We are very happy, that we could reach so many people so efficiently while being able to bring such a cozy and relaxed atmosphere to a science-themed evening.
See us performing in German:
On July the 7th, we had a guest appearance in the university-radio. Two of us represented our project and iGEM. By answering a lot of questions from the radio host, we were able to explain our idea and what we are doing in the lab to create a new therapy against cancer.
With this we wanted to acquaint the listeners about synthetic biology and make clear that it can open new opportunities in therapeutic options. Another aspect was to familiarize our project „OPTOPTOSIS“.
The German television station “Bayerischer Rundfunk” asked us to present our project for television. Obviously, we happily agreed and arranged a meeting.
Four students from our team presented some essential methods used at the laboratory and answered detailed questions about us and our project. For us, it was a bit unfamiliar but nevertheless really interesting to act in front of a camera.
We had a lot of fun with the television crew and are excited to see ourselves at the television show “alpha-campus Magazin” at the end of October.
To bring our project closer to the coming generations of young scientists, we held lectures at schools.We presented our project in the “Stiftisches Humanistisches Gymnasium Mönchengladbach” and in the “Math.Nat”, which is a grammar school specialized in science.
We tried to explain our project to students who are not extensively informed about synthetic biology. Our goal was to fight prejudices about genetically engineered organisms. We held a discussion about the benefits as well as possible risks of our project.
The students were very interested in future developments. A few were even looking forward to participating in their own iGEM project when going to university and asked if they might be mentored by us.
Participation in a Science-Slam
As the first iGEM-Team of Düsseldorf, we participated in the „Heine Slam“, which is held yearly at the Heinrich-Heine-University. Every year, students from all faculties of the university compete with each other.
As soon as we heard about it, we knew it would be a great chance to promote our project even across the borders of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, so we signed up and were very enthusiastic about it.
Soon, we came together at a sunny summer day to discuss and develop ideas for our presentation. After a short time, a great idea came up: To make our presentation Pokémon-themed! Almost everyone at least heard of Pokémon’s mascot Pikachu once in their lives. We felt, that through this, we could achieve the attention and awareness of even more people.
In a very short amount of time, we collected many ideas and developed a presentation in the style of a Pokémon fight; we even re-wrote the lyrics of the original Pokémon theme song to fit our project. Soon, the details were improved and we visualized the fight between „OPTOPTOSIS“ and the „Tumor“ in the classic, oldschool manner as one knows it back from the times of the GameBoy.
Then the evening of the Science Slam came, many people came to the show and voted for us, so we reached the fourth place in the competition.
Even if we did not reach the first place, we had the feeling that we could introduce our vision and project, as well as the iGEM competition itself to many people in an entertaining way. We are sure that we left a lasting impression.
Gonna watch them all!
On the 30th of September, the “Forschungszentrum Jülich” hosted the “Jülich Biotechday 2016”. Four of our members attended this event.
We visited many interesting presentations, some of the speeches in the lecture hall were about the „Development of platform technologies which facilitate construction of microbial cell factories for production of biofuels and chemicals“, “Industrial strain improvement for boosting food functionality“ or even “The plant microbiome: ecology and functioning and how plants can benefit“.
It was a nice and interesting event because we got to know the current state of research. Plus, we had a discussion with Prof. Dr. Akihiko Kondo from the university of Kobe about iGEM. Among other things, he told us about some new interesting features of the crispr-cas9 system.
During lunch break we established contacts with company representatives and got valuable information about some of the newest products.
We are looking forward to attending the next Biotechday in 2017, as well as the 40th anniversary of the Forschungszentrum Jülich.
Integrated Human Practice
Getting a knowledge injection
While building our constructs, we thought about taking our project a step further meaning to develop and establish a new therapy method using our gene constructs. For this, we took into account on how to get our construct into the relevant cells and light to the targeted tumor cells . Those questions were fundamental for the future application and implementation in humans.
But there are way more steps to consider before being able to get an admission for a therapy and actually applying it in clinical practice. There are several federal agencies which control the admission of medicaments such as the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices located in Bonn , Germany and the Paul- Ehrlich- Institute in Langen , Germany. Their job is to control the active substances as well as all other components of the therapy regarding certain keypoints of the guideline of The International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use.
Some of the most important points a medicament has to fulfill are efficacy, safety, quality and multiefficency. Furthermore they the federal agencies act as scientific advisors in the process of a medicament’s development. We contacted them both and luckily we were allowed to visit the Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices and also had a phone meeting with experts of the Paul- Ehrlich- Institute. They gave us a lot of input which we were able to integrate into our project.
It takes about ten to fifteen years to develop a medicament and only one out of 10000 substances finally makes it to the market. Before being allowed to test the active substance it has to undergo certain analysis such as testing for carcinogenicity, single dose as well as repeated dose toxicity, toxicokinetics, genotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, local tolerance and tests in juvenile animals. This preclinical phase lasts about four to six years and includes the previously described and standardized tests as well as animal testing. But even if the medicament makes it to the next phase, the non- clinical phase still goes on and different analysis are made.
After this stage either the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices or the Paul- Ehrlich Institute decides whether the medicament fulfills all necessary criteria to get an admission for clinical studies. Furthermore there are different committees which decide whether clinical studies are authorized, for example the ethical committee at the Heinrich- Heine- University, Duesseldorf.
The clinical phase itself consists of three different sub- phases. First the medicament is tested within a group of about 20 healthy patients who have to be volunteers. To enlighten them and keep them informed is one major task. It is very important that they know that they are able and allowed to quit the study anytime.
Some medicaments skip this phase as it would be inconsiderate to treat healthy human beings with chemotherapy or other active substances which are toxic. Imagining that our project would successfully make it out of the preclinical phase we would not apply our therapy on healthy patients as there is no malignant tissue which would be irradiated.
The second step of the clinical phase would be within a group of about 200 sick patients. This is the so called therapeutic- exploratory stage which aims at detecting possible side effects and testing the actual efficacy. Additionally it has to be shown that this medicament actually is an improvement regarding other already existing medicaments. This part can be a controlled study meaning that there is a control group which is given a placebo and compared to the other group.
If this stage is completed successfully the third clinical phase is ready to start. Its goals are basically the same as the ones in the second clinical phase but with a higher amount of patients which is about 1000. If all criteria, quality, efficacy and safety, are fulfilled, the medicament gets approved and it can be used as a regular therapy.
After it is available on the market, the fourth stage is the pharmacovigilance which means that side effects still have to be reported because some side effects are statistically so rare that they cannot be detected in studies with 10000 patients.
Throughout all the different steps, “good clinical praxis” which is very essential, is watched by different institutions. This means that everything has to be documented properly and fulfill the required criteria.
The Paul- Ehrlich- Institute is a federal institution which promotes quality, efficacy and safety of biomedical drugs through research as well as examination and is responsible for so called advanced therapy medicinal products (ATMP). These ATMPs are defined as biomedical drugs which heal or prevent diseases by correcting, influencing or restoring physiological functions mainly through a pharmacological, immunological or metabolic effect.
ATMPs are divided into somatic cell therapeutics, biotechnological processed tissue products and, relevant to us, gene therapeutics and are subjected to special regulation. Therefore the process of getting a legal authorization is different regarding certain aspects. For example the toxicity tests are not as standardized for ATMPs because there is a higher variation and they might be more unique, so these test may not fit the active substances. In addition the amount of patients may vary as some diseases are rare and the studies are often oriented at the medical need.
Gene therapeutics are defined as medicaments which contain an active substance which consists or is made out of a recombinant nucleic acid and is used within or is given to human beings to regulate, repair, add, delete or replace nucleic acid sequences. Its therapeutic, prophylactic or diagnostic effect also has to stand in direct connection to the recombinant nucleic acid.
Before and after the production permit is given the therapeutic substance has to be developed under the so called Good Manufacturing Production- requirements of the European Medical Agency (EMA) which consists of different formal criteria. These are not only based on the final product but also on the way of production. Once the production permit is granted by the EMA for gene therapeutics, the therapeutic substance is allowed in every country within the European Union.
HDU presentation at the NRW-Day
On Saturday the 27th and Sunday the 28th of August we presented iGEM and our scientific project aiming to fight cancer at the „Haus der Universität“ at the “Schadow-Platz” in Düsseldorf.
This was due to the whole weekend of the „NRW-Day 2016“ being a celebration of North Rhine- Westphalia’s 70th anniversary of its capital city Düsseldorf. It was well visited and successful at the same time.
On the first day we managed to convince a lot of people on the streets to listen to our presentation. We held our presentation in front of a very interested and attentive audience. Our special guests were the Minister of science Svenja Schulze and the Minister of education Sylvia Löhrmann.
Furthermore, we were able to determine that there is a big necessity to educate the public about synthetic biology by having profound discussions after our talk. To our surprise, some (former) cancer patients visited us during the weekend after having heard from our project through local newspapers.
For the younger generation, we prepared a little experiment in the hallway. The experiment consisted of isolating DNA from pepper by using everyday utensils. Our key task in those two days was to explain the concept of the synthetic biology in a simple and intelligible way to the general public.
Fortunately, we succeeded due to the audience being very interested in what we are doing. Some kids were so fascinated, that they visited us another time the next day.
For the second day we invited other iGEM-Teams from North Rhine-Westphalia to present their projects on an hourly basis. We are very happy that every North Rhine-Westphalian team - Aachen, Bielefeld and Bonn - managed to come. The presentations were very interesting and the visitors asked for more details afterwards. All in all, the weekend was a full success.
We had very interesting conversations with the visitors, sparked interest in the younger generation and were able to exchange ideas with the other iGEM-teams.
Seeking expertise from Barbara Diventura (former DKFZ)
On Tuesday, the 20th of September, we had the great opportunity to discuss our project with Dr. Barbara Diventura and sought her professional opinion.
Barbara Diventura is an expert in the fields of cell biology and cancer research, her work focuses on signaling pathways and gene regulation, currently exploring the optogenetic control of nuclear protein export. Her team uses LOV, which is one of our main optogenetic proteins. She is the head of Molecular and Cellular Engineering group at BioQuant, Heidelberg and formerly worked for DKFZ (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum aka German Cancer Research Center)
During our Skype meeting we presented our project in detail. The following discussion focused especially on our two-light-component and all of the activation processes we had and still have to consider before implementing the genes in humans to expressing the proteins.
Additionally, we talked about the reachability of light through cells as well as the safety aspects of viral gene transfer. In the process of our discussion, Barbara asked many helpful as well as challenging questions, thus helping us in further developing and shaping our concept.
Coming to a conclusion of our conversation, we spent the last minutes talking about the future of synthetic biology in cancer research. She told us that recognizing cancer cells from the inside of them using mRNA is a promising field of research.
All in all, talking to Barbara helped us immensely with rounding up our project and we carefully implemented her input. We are very thankful to her for taking time for us.
Cancer Information Day
On September the 10th, we visited the 5th information day about cancer in Düsseldorf at the “Haus der Universität”. The annual organizer is the tumor center from the university hospital Düsseldorf.
Some physicians from the tumor center presented different topics about current research, modern potential treatments and after treatments.
We were very interested in the speech by Prof. Dr. Wilfried Budach, director of the radiotherapy and radiooncology clinic at the university hospital Düsseldorf, about the significant progress in radiotherapy.
He said: “We can really see a substantial improvement for patients treated with radiotherapy. This concerns the optimal dose distribution, tolerance, duration and effectiveness of the exposure. The limits of what is physically possible are exhausted by the “Volumetric Modulated Radiotherapy” with which we have had good experiences. This therapy spares healthy tissue despite using the maximum dose. Furthermore, a worldwide study shows that the time of exposure can be reduced without the loss of efficiency for some diagnoses (e.g. breast cancer: exposure for four instead six weeks).
However, the most promising insight is the combination therapy between radiotherapy and immune-checkpoint-blockers, which is already applied in the case of black skin cancer."
That said, there is only experimental data that have yet to be confirmed by clinical studies. However, Prof. Dr. Wilfried Budach sees huge potential for this therapy, particularly for types of cancer that were difficult to treat before.
We had a very interesting afternoon and are looking forward to the next information day about cancer in 2017.
Beate Kaufmann educating us about Adeno-associated viruses (AAV's)
Looking into the future we intend to find a way how to insert our construct into cancer cells but due to time constraints we have not been able to try it out experimentally. Previous iGEM teams such as the iGEM Team Freiburg 2010, which designed a Virus Construction Kit, as well as the BGU team 2015, which inserted their constructs into cancer cells using AAVs, have already developed a way to do so. Therefore it is our aim to insert our construct in cancer cells with the help of the Virus Construction Kit designed by Team Freiburg 2010.
Luckily we had the opportunity to skype with Beate Kaufmann, a member of the iGEM Team Freiburg 2010, who was so kind to discuss our questions concerning the Virus Construction Kit and gave us useful tips as she still has expert knowledge about her own project.
Furthermore using AAVs comes with many advantages such as low pathogenicity and mild immune response. Additionally they have been tested in clinical studies and the European Medicines Agency has already approved an AAV mediated gene therapy called Glybera to treat the orphan disease lipoprotein lipase deficiency.  
Talking to affected people
To our surprise, some (former) cancer patients visited us during the weekend of NRW-Day Celebration after having heard from our project through local newspapers. It was very interesting to hear about the experiences of a cancer patient from a personal point of view.
Two women who came to our presentation told us about their experiences with the diagnosis “breast cancer” and how they dealt with it. While speaking with them we noticed how much they were interested in the disease and that they were very excited about new ways to fight cancer and our project in general.
It was very sad to hear that one of the women felt neglected of her physicians and that they did not want to explain the working mechanisms of her medication. But this showed us very well how important it is to educate people about and clarify how the development of new therapies and medication actually works.
People do want to know more about this dreadful disease. In this case, it was on us to explain and how cancer is working and how we will be able to fight it in future. The next day, we continued our research even more eagerly.
Survey about the public’s knowledge and opinion about cancer, cancer treatment and gene therapy
Both cancer and gene therapy are publically highly discussed topics. Cancer is one of the most common causes of death in the Western world, only cardiovascular diseases are more common. Therefore, cancer is an omnipresent topic in everyday life. Almost everyone knows at least one person in their close circle who has or had cancer and witnessed the often life-altering side-effects of today’s rather crude treatments, like chemo- or radiation therapy. Hence it is not surprising that there is a huge demand for newer, less severe treatment methods. One of those treatments is the so called gene therapy, a method our project is derived from as well. Yet, gene therapy often causes a public uproar and is met with broad rejection.
But what is the public’s actual opinion about the topic. And how well are people informed about cancer and its therapies? How well is our project received by the people? And where would people search for information about such topics? Those were questions we wondered about, so we decided to create and conduct a survey to answer those questions. The survey was conducted online and face to face in Düsseldorf’s downtown.See survey details