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Northern Power Futures Festival

They delivered as promised ‘an explosion of inspiration, workshops, practical advice and engaging event for all to enjoy’ on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th November 2018 in Manchester Central.
NP Futures Manchester central
I turned up to observe and listen seriously and carefully. Discussions covered ‘all things work, community, culture, lifestyle and wellbeing’.

It was refreshing and worthwhile to be able to turn up at such an event without any prior commitment and discover some quality sessions.

Notably, there was a large turn out of school students on the Friday, enthusiastic to participate in talks clearly relevant to their futures in both a regional and global context.

Going to events in this way gives you access to a wider perspective on developments in different contexts.

Thank you to the organisers, speakers etc., and all those involved. It takes a lot of hard work and experience to make it flow so naturally and be so relevant overall.

More information on Northern Power Futures here

by Dr Julie Charlesworth

‘It’s a wrap!’ ESOF 2018

‘It’s a wrap!’ ESOF 2018 was a truly inspiring and uplifting experience!!
I’d like to share my overall experience with you, through a compilation of a few more of my snapshots.

ESOF 2018 overview

The EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF 2018) was very timely because it put SCIENCE and EUROPE in the spotlight with a motto of ‘sharing science towards new horizons’.

There were more than 4000 participants ( >25% under 35); coming from 93 countries with 107 nationalities represented.

Central to the event was a full week of programmes, jam-packed with intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking sessions: excellent keynotes, a plethora of diverse presentations, panel sessions, workshops etc. Three key themes were SCIENCE, BUSINESS, and CAREERS. Alongside these programmes there were exhibition stands and posters to discuss. Throughout the week there were plenty of networking opportunities with speakers, scientists, policy makers and other participants.

Having media accreditation, I also had access to the Press Room and of course I voiced many questions in the press conferences.

In addition to all the hard work there was a programme of social events culminating in the ESOF Party at the Cité de l’espace – a fitting setting to celebrate the joy of scientific discovery with serious science, fun science and humour. An uplifting 🚀 experience!

Over the summer, I have already started writing on particular topics and new ideas – there will be more to come …

Overall, just to say it was all about exploring new subjects, feeling the pulse of current issues and exciting developments; questioning, sharing ideas and communicating back to wider ‘audiences’. It’s about developing understanding on a range of new topics and across disciplines and making new friends.

SHARING SCIENCE TOWARDS NEW HORIZONS!

by Dr Julie Charlesworth

Synthetic Biology – Some Frontier Research

Information and thoughts from presentations and discussions at the EuroScience Open Forum, Toulouse, France 2018

I recently had an opportunity to find out what is happening in some exciting frontier research where new approaches in synthetic biology might ultimately lead to the discovery and development of potential medicines, greater availability of medicines, and hopefully enable the production of cheaper and more effective medicines.

Photos taken at the EuroScience Open Forum in Toulouse, France: ESOF 2018 session on challenges and promises of synthetic biology and also the press conference

INTRODUCTION

In this blog article I am reporting on information shared and discussed at ESOF on the 13th of July 2018, and I am also sharing my thoughts with you on this fascinating and thought-provoking area of research.

There are 5 sections for you to browse or you can quickly scroll to those parts of most interest to you.

The sections are:

WHAT IS SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY?

EXCITING RESEARCH IN THIS FIELD – the science

WHY I THINK IT IS IMPORTANT TO DISCUSS THIS NOW

SUMMARY AND CONCLUDING REMARK

*FURTHER INFORMATION

WHAT IS SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY?
Synthetic biology aims to build artificial systems for innovative applications in biotechnology, medicine and bio-engineering. It also aims to answer some long-standing questions in biology.

Synthetic biology requires an interdisciplinary approach which can include biotechnology, molecular biology, genetic and chemical engineering, modelling systems and evolutionary biology.

EXCITING RESEARCH IN THIS FIELD – the science

Setting the scene – why has there been so much interest and news coverage in recent times? Synthetic biology has raised hopes for addressing some potential crises in nature such as species extinction, plastics in the oceans and the needs of society such as cheaper drugs, cleaner fuels and new organisms that could help reduce climate change by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. These are big topics. Sometimes there is a risk of ‘hype’ and not every potential breakthrough will deliver. Nonetheless, there have been exciting advances and there are many promises and challenges.

There is a lot of potential to do good. For example, scientists are currently working to edit the genes of mosquitos to prevent them from carrying malaria. With the demonstration of the first gene drive system* and potential genetic control technologies for the malaria mosquito, gene-drive technology to speed the inheritance of specific genes has attracted interest from scientists. There is ongoing frontier research to develop biosynthetic tools for engineering genomes and pan-genomes (an entire gene set of all strains of a species) with precision.

Work in areas of synthetic biology does tend to raise questions about our relationship to the natural world. Issues of potential uncontrolled consequences should be addressed in designs.
There are also some ethical and societal concerns to consider including the potential for misuse and risks. Questions to the panel of researchers, and an open discussion with the session attendees and representatives of the media, were encouraged in the ESOF sessions.

Promises and challenges in three specific areas of frontier scientific research were presented and discussed further:

Medicinally active natural products from plants. We learned how, by understanding the science i.e. the biosynthetic pathways involved in making these products, it may be possible to harness the medicinal activity of these plant-derived molecules. Thus, with the discovery of the relevant plant genes and the biosynthetic pathways, scientists may be able to engineer micro-organisms to produces complex molecules that could be of pharmaceutical value. This could potentially facilitate the large scale production of new medicines. This is easier said than done.

CRISPR* systems and their application may enable scientists to better understand and fight pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria; gaining further insight into bacterial genetics to develop increasingly effective medical treatments

CRISPR technology was adapted from a natural defence mechanism of bacteria (and archaea, another domain of single-celled microorganisms) where CRISPR has evolved to recognise viral DNA and fight off future invasive attacks of viruses.

There has been much recent excitement about the potential use of CRISPR technology as a simple yet powerful tool for gene editing in more complex organisms. Gene editing allows scientists to change gene sequences by adding, replacing or removing sections of DNA. CRISPR components can pinpoint DNA sequences within the gene which is to be altered. Then an enzyme called Cas9 snips through the DNA changing it or allowing it to be replaced by another stretch of DNA that is introduced at the same time. This can either replace a faulty gene with a healthy one or change a gene to make it behave differently. `

At ESOF 2018 we learned about some exciting frontier research ‘putting the CRISPR back in bacteria’ and investigating other repair systems in bacteria in conjunction with CRISPR to develop new and efficient tools for bacterial gene editing. This type of work could be potentially useful for novel approaches against infections; particularly relevant in view of the issue of Antibacterial Resistance, which is a real threat now and of increasing concern.
For example, we heard about research using CRISPR tools for reprogramming in order to target antibiotic resistant genes and achieve the sequence specific killing of virulent (harmful) members of a microbial population, and immunising avirulent (not virulent) members.
 In this way sequence-specific antimicrobials could be potentially delivered by a bacteriophage (a virus that infects and replicates within bacteria). Clinical trials to develop such antimicrobials could face many regulatory issues.

MYCOCHASSIS
Engineering bacteria to deliver therapeutic agents or to present antigens (substance that causes the body to make an immune response against that substance) for vaccination is an interesting approach with potentially promising clinical application. However, a key challenge is the choice of bacteria to engineer for this use i.e. the ‘chassis’ you use.

Mycoplasmas are small and relatively simple bacteria that are good candidates for ‘chassis’ design. The ‘MYCOCHASSIS’ project is using a genome-reduced bacterium Mycoplasma pneumonia (M. pneumonia). This project is ‘combining bioinformatics, -omics, and biochemistry approaches with genome engineering tools, systems biology analyses, and computational whole-cell models’. (See further information below*)

The goals of ongoing research are to engineer M. pneumonia and characterise this chassis (using in vivo models i.e. whole living organisms). Further work is needed to address the potential development of a ‘chassis’ to treat human lung diseases. It is an area with promises and challenges.

WHY I THINK IT IS IMPORTANT TO DISCUSS THIS NOW
There is an increasing focus of synthetic biology on biotechnology and medical applications for very good reasons. There have been important advances in synthetic biology, notably in gene-editing techniques. It is an area of fascinating science – with many potential benefits. It is a fast changing field with new reports emerging frequently – including new promising initiatives, challenges and concerns. Furthermore, advances in one field may also have exciting implications in other fields. It is important to keep track of challenges and opportunities.

Questions relating to any emerging issues in biological engineering need to be discussed and as with other new developments in science and technology, risk-benefit assessment and monitoring is important for decision making.

Synthetic biology should address the needs of society as well as being in accordance with societal values and ethics. Development of new medicines and creation of synthetic DNA and forms of life are highly relevant to us all. I think the purpose should be for the good of humankind. There will, however, be different viewpoints of what is ‘good’ and discussions could be highly contentious – better to proceed with an eyes wide open approach.


There will need to be appropriate regulations and safeguards against misuse (intended or unintended) particularly with such very fast moving technology, which in some cases could become easily and widely available.

It is likely there will be unexpected breakthroughs, which may be pursued and lead to effective solutions. On the other hand, some may be considered too risky. There will be different opinions, and debates will continue. Possible implications for society, including questions, risks and opportunities need to be openly discussed.

There are concerns about the possibility of criminal activity and manufacture of illegal drugs using engineered organisms. For legal medicinal products a shift toward more equitable and globally distributed pharmaceutical production could be a beneficial and worthy goal. However, there would be concerns around the potential disruption of existing manufacturing markets and raw material supply chains, and new makers could disrupt pharmaceutical markets.

The reversibility of a genetic technology will depend on its interplay with biological, ecological and social environments. Some people consider gene drive techniques too risky to become the technique of choice. Although it may appear promising, it may not necessarily provide the best option to address a particular targeted challenge.

If, in the future, we are faced with an urgent necessity, the type of research done now to characterise potential solutions, may be very useful and enable a more rapid development of a solution. Ongoing research is exciting not only for its potential applications but also in advancing our knowledge and understanding of fascinating areas of biology and understanding in life sciences.

SUMMARY
The three presentations and open discussions between the panel and audiences provided a valuable insight into the field of synthetic biology. Some specific and exciting advances in ongoing work were described; along with promises and also challenges. There were opportunities for open discussion covering specific and general questions.

CONCLUDING REMARK
This frontier research has many promises and also many challenges. 
It is fascinating science and has enormous potential.

……………………………….

*FURTHER INFORMATION

CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.
Short animation videos:
What is gene editing and how does it work?
(Published on 4 Oct 2016 Produced by the Royal Society in conjunction with Wellcome Trust)
Genetic Engineering and Diseases – Gene Drive & Malaria (Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell Published on 21 Sep 2016)

Some further reading:
’20 emerging issues in biological engineering’ Wintle et al. eLife 2017;6:e30247. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30247

‘Exploiting CRISPR-Cas nucleases to produce sequence-specific antimicrobials’ David Bikard et al Nature Biotechnology 32,1146–1150(2014)
‘Defining a minimal cell: essentiality of small ORFs and ncRNAs in a genome-reduced bacterium’Lluch-Senar M et al. Mol Syst Biol. 2015 Jan 21;11(1):780. doi: 10.15252/msb.20145558.

UKRI exhibition: epigenetics and more…

Look what I came across in the exhibition hallway – UKRI making its mark! It was a chance to hear more about this new ‘entity’ and to discuss interesting ongoing research in many different fields.

Photos taken at the July 2018 EuroScience Open Forum Toulouse, France

I just couldn’t resist the chance to play with a hands on activity relating to epigenetics – a fun approach to understanding science.

Have you ever wondered how every cell of your body has the same DNA but is not doing the same thing and cells are doing different things at different times?

‘All of your body’s roughly 50 trillion cells contain the same genetic information encoded within your DNA. DNA is interpreted differently in each cell type due to epigenetics, a collection of chemical marks that affect how genes behave. As such, epigenetics is part of what allows each part of your body to do different jobs.’

‘UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is a new entity that brings together nine partners to create an independent organisation with a strong voice for research and innovation’

More about UKRI here
More about work in this area at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge,UK.

by Dr Julie Charlesworth

Thank you ESOF 2018!

Euorpean Science Open Forum (ESOF 2018) media accreditation

EuroScience Open Forum 2018 in France

Thank you ESOF 2018!

For Media Accreditation

For the Freedom to dip in and out with access to everything. The opportunity to meet, mingle and make friends with so many interesting people.

As a science communicator, I am returning with so many stories to tell from Toulouse.

I will be spreading not only the serious science but also the joy of science. Watch this space – here and elsewhere.

by Dr Julie Charlesworth

Back to the labs and forward to a new generation of researchers…

I enjoy interacting with early-career researchers and mentoring students in order to understand their current challenges and aspirations; to share my career experiences and tips; and to support and encourage PhD students. Such students have so much potential!

I gladly took up a recent invitation to meet and talk with researchers in the field of cancer research, in Manchester (UK).

There are so many opportunities ahead for them!

by Dr Julie Charlesworth

Standing up for Science

I was delighted to have been invited, as an observer, to attend this event for PhD students, postdocs and early researchers in various fields of research. The ‘Standing up for Science’ Manchester Voice of Young Science (VOYS) workshop organised by Sense about Science was held on 13th April 2018 at Manchester University.

As a mentor to students in the Life Sciences, my main purpose was to explore how this type of event could benefit my mentees. The workshop turned out to be worthwhile for this purpose and many other reasons…

Standing up for Science

Arriving early!
Cognisant of the potential traffic delays, I set off in good time only to arrive an hour early! Still, this provided a chance to say ‘hello’ to the organisers Anastasia, Chris and Sanjana. After receiving a very warm, friendly welcome I then quickly made myself scarce to enable them to get everything ready for the day ahead. On return (at the correct registration time!), I found the room was filling up with 40 young research scientists a few of whom clearly knew each other and the others soon did.

Refreshments time and a table of take away information to browse provided informal networking opportunities. The attendees were then seated and the lively banter continued – the atmosphere boded well.

The meeting started.
The day comprised a full programme including breakout small group discussions providing researchers a ‘warm-up’ with some fascinating and thought-provoking issues to talk about in readiness to voice their questions and opinions to the wider group, and for the panel sessions that followed each breakout session. The calibre of the panellists was high including researchers who have engaged with the media; policymakers talking about why good evidence is important for them and how researchers can help inform policy; respected science journalists talking about how the media works, how to respond and comment, and what journalists expect from scientists and researchers. Communications experts provided hints and tips on how young researchers can start standing up for science and how to involve the public in communicating research.

In summary, the workshop covered topics such as science and the media; what policymakers are looking for; what journalists are looking for; support available from institutions and also the responsibilities of research scientists for the public discussion of science and evidence. There was much lively, thought-provoking debate. On the day, I was asked to participate in the discussions and I was very happy to do so.

I was struck by the professionalism and slick organisation of the event together with the ambience created to foster open and honest discussion. The enthusiasm, maturity and sheer potential of young researchers today is heart-warming and in my opinion they deserve to be encouraged and supported in their careers and the many challenges they face.

I also heard some new perspectives from young researchers – lifelong learning is important and so much fun.

Based on this experience, I am definitely recommending future events to my mentees, particularly the PhD students in Life Sciences.

A big thank you to the organisers for inviting me to attend what proved to be an informative, inspiring and enjoyable day.

by Dr Julie Charlesworth

Links for further information about Sense about Science and the Manchester event.

Celebrating Inspiring Women at Manchester, March 2018

I was delighted to have been invited to the ‘Celebrating Inspiring Women at Manchester’ event on International Women’s Day, 8th March 2018.

Celebrating Inspiring Women at Manchester

This year the discussions focussed on the media industry and the ways it shapes how we talk about women. The expert panel discussion stimulated an insightful and thought-provoking evening with some timely and pertinent questions together with an atmosphere of openness and sharing of experiences. It was also a great opportunity for meeting new friends, colleagues and current students to reflect on progress made and new challenges. Thank you to all the organisers for making this such an interesting and enjoyable event.

More about this event and other perspectives on International Women’s Day to be found here.

by Dr Julie Charlesworth

2018 and a new theme for A Tree of Life Sciences

2018 heralds our new theme….

… in Life Sciences, Clinical and Health Research and Initiatives

We are increasing our involvement in international high-value collaborative projects, through consultancy and communication work, whilst continuing to support initiatives and causes that are heartfelt.

Here’s to great co-operation, collaboration and communication in 2018!

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