Diabetes is a global problem and it is only getting worse. The maps above demonstrate that even rich, developed countries are not save from Diabetes, but rather the opposite. The disease is a leading cause for death and working, globally available solutions are desperately needed. We highly recommend to hover over the different countries and explore the values. This year, we divided our Human Practices project into four phases to structure our approach and integrated our work into our project:
Phase I: General Considerations
Phase II: Human Practice Events of the iGEM Team Tübingen
Phase III: Integration of new strategies based on our public outreach
Phase IV: Conclusion and Reflection
We started off our human practice work with stakeholder identification in order to get an overview of topics our human practice work should include. We came up with four groups: Diabetes patients, the scientific community, the civil society and the pharmaceutical industry. For Diabetes patients, we want to provide a convenient, safe and less expensive alternative to current treatment options with the potential to add value through weight-loss and anti-inflammatory probiotics. Since our project aims to develop a treatment used by humans, medical ethics had to be considered.
The scientific community is a stakeholder since responsible and ethical research is required to drive acceptance of innovation and progress within the society. Moreover, since our project encompasses the generation of a genetically engineered organism, we decided that the civil society had to be included in our considerations. To gain access to and acceptance by the public, educational programs are as important as making sure our project is safe (Safety), Project/KillSwitch), ethical (People/Collaborations) and law-abiding.
Lastly, the pharmaceutical industry was found to be a stakeholder in our project, since we have the potential of starting a new business and launching a new product (Human Practices/Entrepreneurship).
Human Practice Events of the iGEM Team Tübingen
First of all, we talked to diverse experts in the field of Diabetes mellitus (Human Practices/Experts). Dr. Timo Dirk Müller is the acting director of the IDO (Institute for Diabetes and Obesity) of the Helmholtz Institute Munich, researching Diabetes mellitus. When we proposed our idea to him, he pointed us towards several weak-points of our initial idea, which led us to focus on Exendin-4 instead of GLP-1 (Project/Incretin).
Additionally, we met with Prof. Dr. Andreas Fritsche, deputy director of the Institute for Diabetes Research and Metabolic Disease at the University Clinic Tuebingen, to get a clinical opinion on our project. He made us aware of our product’s additional potential to be used as an obesity treatment (Project/Outlook) and the fact that we would have to work intensively against the negative connotation of GMOs as unhealthy and unnatural.
Consequently, we designed a survey to gather information on the public’s perception on GMOs and the treatment of Diabetes mellitus (Human Practices/Survey). The survey was launched during a presentation of our project at a Science Slam.
The survey showed (LINK), that further education about GMOs and Diabetes mellitus is necessary and wanted by the public to lift the burden of stigma off GMOs and to provide a beneficial environment for a product like ours. Therefore, we were happy to collaborate with the iGEM team Dresden and the working group of Prof. Eike Latz at the Institute for Innate Immunity in Bonn on the design of an informative flyer (Human Practices/Education & Public Engagement). This flyer was handed out at our information booth on GMOs in the city centre of Tuebingen.
Furthermore, we were sure that one can fight stigma through knowledge and open science. Thus we collaborated with the Experimenta science centre in Heilbronn to host a student lab and a panel discussion on Biohacking (Human Practices/Experimenta). Also, several team members visited their old high schools to talk about iGEM and synthetic biology.
The SDGs (Human Practices/SDGs) were one of our other main aspects in the human practice world. We were made aware that time is running out for the fulfillment of the goals and therefore wanted to support the United Nations’ aims through a scientific approach. Hence, we collaborated with the iGEM teams TAS_Taipei and Costa Rica, designing a subpage, a collage builder and the iGEMxSDGs challenge (People/Collaborations). Furthermore, we participated in the SDG video conference hosted by TAS_Taipei.
As mentioned above, ethics must play an important role in research and medicine, since it provides safety to the society and environment, as well as credibility for the scientific community. For this purpose, we collaborated with iGEM Tel Hai Migal on the ethical evaluation of their project (People/Collaborations).
Integration of new strategies based on our public outreach
We were not surprised to find that our human practice work influenced the development of our project. Exemplarily, we added the kill switch system (Project/KillSwitch) to our design after speaking with Prof. Fritsche, who addressed the public’s fear of GMOs. Moreover, we started the survey based on Prof. Fritsche’s assessment, which later on confirmed the fear of unintentional spreading of engineered organisms.
Prof. Müller hinted us towards Exendin-4, but also inspired us to look into mechanisms which would provide more bioavailability of our product. This led us to the CPPs. Since CPPs were widely uncharacterized in iGEM and their safety is controversial, we talked to Dr. Jörg Schibel and Dr. Brigitte Walderich, Biosafety experts of the University Tübingen and the Max Planck Institute Tübingen. We evaluated the CPPs’ safety (Safety) and started their characterisation in the laboratory. The results found by our survey showed us that educational events were necessary to on the one hand open the society up for GMO-based treatment and on the other hand provide information on Diabetes mellitus and its prevention. This was the basis for the Experimenta collaboration, the educational booth and the flyer. During our student lab, we found the students to be very excited about synthetic biology and therefore made plans for the initiation of a high-school student iGEM team in Heilbronn. Moreover, the booth showed us that the public is open for a discussion about GMOs and that there are many misconceptions and fears within the public, which could be erased by a better communication between scientists and the public.
Conclusion and Reflection
Overall, we experienced that it is actually very interesting and fun to talk science with the public. However, we also realised that communication is key. It can be hard to explain a scientific topic like ours to somebody without a scientific background. Nonetheless, a mutual understanding is necessary for acceptance and we found that this understanding is very much achievable.
Unfortunately, it was hard to gain access to support groups since they are very suspicious of advertisement and the pharmaceutical industry. For our product, we were keen to talk to Diabetes patients. Understandably, administrators of support groups want to protect their members from medical advertisement or the misuse of their data. Although we made sure that the data we obtained was protected, we were only able to spread our survey by word and not within the clinical setting.
We also realised that human practice work can give you access to resources for your work, thus we were happy to receive financial support for our laboratory from some of our collaboration partners (People/Sponsors) or contact to other experts who helped us with our project.
Moreover, we found that global collaboration may be hard organisation-wise, however, the diverse viewpoints and background will also give rise to creative ideas and projects, like our approach with the SDGs.
Lastly, our human practice work made us proud of ourselves and we were very honoured to win the university of Tuebingen’s price for exceptional student engagement.