Team:Aberdeen Scotland/Ethics/Introspection


Team:Aberdeen Scotland -

Our Simplest Guidelines for Safe Work and Ethical Practices, if you plan on working on real parasites!

Investigating samples from patients

As every enthusiastic scientist, since we started working on Human African Trypanosomiasis, we wanted to reach the stage where we could test blood human samples with our integrated system, to investigate its efficiency and specificity in real patients. Therefore, we started contacting experts in the field, to understand more about possible problems and to seek advice. From that perspective, World Health Organization has been one of our biggest targets. After more research, we found out that WHO targeted HAT elimination as a public health problem by 2020. Also, in 2013 WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation signed an agreement to support innovative strategies to eliminate the disease. To support that, they set up a specimen bank containing blood, serum, cerebrospinal fluid, saliva and urine from affected and unaffected people from endemic countries from Africa.

Acting upon it!

We completed a form to submit it to the organization. However, our naïve expectations were soon faced with reality after consulting our idea with one of the supervisors, Dr Berndt Muller, who further evaluated it with Aberdeen University Safety Committee. Unfortunately, we did not have the necessary training or the vaccinations required to work with real antigens. Even more, that could have exposed us to risk of infections, had we not checked it with qualified personnel before.

Different approach

Even though we felt disappointed, this experience taught us that ethical and safety issues are the basis of any scientific project and only by addressing those issues first, you can then be free to tackle the real scientific challenges. Our different approach was to design the project in the direction of a proof-of-concept idea and to find different ways through which we could get our project to the stage of a more real-life based assay and characterisation. Therfore, we did more literature research and contacted immediately two experts in the field of Human African Trypanosomiasis, Dr. Philippe Büscher, Head of the Unit of Parasite Diagnostics at Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp and Liesbeth Van Nieuwenhove, PhD Biology & Veterinarian. After explaining our project to them, we kindly asked them if they could provide us with antibodies against the most common trypanosomal antigens, VSG 1.3 and 1.5. They have been extremely understanding and helpful and they even sent more samples that we asked for, to allow us to test our novel trypanosomal detector. Thank you!

Unfortunately, 10 weeks did not allow us to test those tryapanosomal antibodies, as we wanted. Frustrating enough, we have both the mimotopes for trypanosomes and the antibodies provided in the -80°C freezer, waiting for a future Aberdeen Team to be tested.

Influence on our project and advice for other iGEM teams

We realized that our initial, enthusiastic plan of working with real trypanosome pathogens in the laboratory was not achievable, but we could say that it helped us develop a novel approach to tackle the same problem without any safety and ethical concern, by getting in contact with researchers that work on the disease, who are more than keen to offer help to undergraduates.

Moreover, we realized that people’s fear for synthetic biology and genetic engineering sometimes expands beyond boundaries. Mass populations fear the evolvement of deadly viruses and random cloning, due to poor understanding of synthetic biology and scientific achievements. Therefore, we aimed to educate the public and we targeted different audiences: general public-short radio interview; more specialized public-publishing Blogposts on the Aberdeen University magazine website and giving a short presentation for the Explorathon European Researchers’ Night. Moreover, we presented our project both at the beginning and the end of the summer, by going to the iGEM Scottish Team Meeting and Synthetic Biology Conference in Edinburgh, respectively to Professor Muffy Calder, Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, at The Royal Society of Edinburgh. We also created an interactive DNA translating device, which could be used by a 10 year-old and we used social media (Facebook, Twitter and Goggle+ account) to advertise our project, iGEM and synthetic biology.

We encourage further iGEM teams to never give up on their project idea, because there are always safe and novel ways through which they can address it. Where there is a will, there is a way!