What’s this science communication and public engagement stuff all about?

By Helen Obee Reardon

Helen is a guest writer for The Brain Domain, and is the Impact Specialist in the Business Interface team at Cardiff School of Engineering. She has an MSc Communicating Science and fifteen years’ experience in engagement and science communication.

Science communication and public engagement are terms often used by organisations involved in research, particularly those who spend public money. It’s a requirement of many funding bodies and both are important to universities thanks to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) . But what are they all about?

For me, as for most things to do with engagement, the answer is “It depends…” – the explanation changes depending on the background of the person or organisation providing it and the context of the activity but it’s all based on the same thing. Here I discuss some of the questions I’m regularly asked.

Is STEM communication and science communication the same thing?

It depends (see?). Science communication and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) communication can be considered the same with “science” used as an umbrella term for the STEM subjects. This must irk technologists, engineers and mathematicians somewhat but it is the current common usage: it’s not unusual for those outside the sector not to know what STEM means. However, organisations such as the British Interactive Group (BIG) refers to STEM communicators; this reflects the broad base of their membership and our sector is familiar with the term. From now on I’ll refer only to science communication to avoid headaches.

So what’s the difference between engagement and public engagement?

It depends (just kidding). Nothing at all: you’ve just specifically defined the audience. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s (NCCPE) definition is useful:

Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.

The key points here are:

  • the two way exchange – without it it’s not engagement, it’s probably outreach
  • mutual benefit – each party should get something from it. To realise these benefits the needs of the audience must be considered and met before meeting those delivering engagement: if the audience isn’t considered from the start it’s unlikely to go well

Audience? Eh?

Not necessarily to do with a show, it just means the group of people you’ve identified to work with. They could have an interest in your specialism or be an identified group you want to work with such as a school, community or organisation. It can be as broad as “the public” or as specific as a named community group.

Outreach? Eh?

This is an interesting term as it means different things to different people. In my experience it’s often a default setting: let’s go and impart our knowledge to a group who will be grateful to receive it. To put it politely this is patronising and unpleasant, reinforcing a negative stereotype of science (see NCCPE’s definition above). It’s also an application of the deficit model which is generally acknowledged as not the way things are done nowadays. There is a place for this form of outreach but only as long as it’s honestly the best way to deliver this project for this audience.

So is science communication the same as public engagement?

It depends (no, really it does). To me the core skills, tools and techniques are the same but the application can change; a science communication project might have public engagement as an element and vice versa. Science communication is the thing you do, the public is who you do it with (note: not to).

1 PE vs Sci comm
Depending on the project public engagement and science communication can be the technique or the overarching aim. All rights reserved Helen Obee Reardon.

What does good science communication and public engagement look like?

It depends (I did warn you). That’s a tough one. “Good” is different to different audiences, projects and practitioners so it’s hard to point at one thing. Below is my model of thinking about both which may help; my model evolves and changes over time depending on who I’m working for, the audiences I’m working with and the aim of the project.

2 PE model
An engagement or science communication model. All rights reserved Helen Obee Reardon.

I also recommend looking at Participation Cymru’s National Principles for Public Engagement. By following these you should produce a good piece of engagement.

3 National-Principles-for-Public-Engagement-in-Wales-English

What is the public?

Interesting question, NCCPE have discussed this and whether it should be “public” or “publics”; while technically you may be working with publics the more common usage is “public”.

When should I engage?

It depends (there I go again) on the desired outcome: do you want to inform research, find research subjects or partners, or disseminate your findings?

4 When to engage
The points in a project when engagement can be useful. Orange arrows show inputs and outputs. All rights reserved Helen Obee Reardon.

Why should I do engagement/science communication? What are the benefits?

It depends (seriously). There are various reasons and benefits, these are a few of them:

  • To inform your project
  • To gather data (make sure you sort the ethics out)
  • To disseminate your findings
  • To get a fresh perspective on your work
  • Because you want to
  • Because someone said you have to (it happens)
  • Because it’s in the funding application (it also happens)

Do I have to do it? What if I’m no good?

In an ideal world you wouldn’t. But let’s face it this world is far from ideal: sometimes we have no choice if it’s been written into a funding application or we’re instructed by someone higher up. Look for support to help you, the steps above can help you plan and deliver something that should be successful. Please don’t let the audience know you don’t want to be there, it never ends well for you or for them.

The trick is finding out what type of engagement you’re good at and start there. I’m rather good running projects that involve face-to-face engagement so that’s mainly what I do: this whole written word thing doesn’t come naturally but I’ve decided to learn through writing this blog.

This is a field where you learn by doing; pick up the basics first and then there’s no substitute for getting out there, doing, reflecting, refining and doing it again. And again, and again…

Help?

Never fear: your organisation is likely to have support available, it’s just a matter of finding it. Please ask, all of us involved in science communication and public engagement have asked for help at some point and this is a highly collaborative field. To help you out I’ve written a blog about sources of support. If you have any questions pop them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.

Good luck and I hope to see you out there sometime.

This article was originally posted on Helen’s personal blog.

Edited by Jonathan

Reflections on Epilepsy

This reflection article was written by Chantal about her experiences of epilepsy and the treatments she has undergone. Chantal is happy to be contacted by our readers, to do so please use our Contact Us form and we will pass on your message.

The Story I Tell at Parties

By Chantal Mynda Müller-Cohn

At sixteen I stood in the kitchen, waiting to leave with my dad in order to go to the DMV to pick up my license. Finally, I’d be able to leave when I wanted and go where I pleased. Minutes before leaving, a mysterious but common wave, which I can still only explain as uncomfortable, rushed through my body. My father placed a banana in my hand, thinking it was low blood sugar. Next thing I remember, two uniformed men were hovering above me. One sat on my right holding my arm to check my pulse while the other on my left asked me for my name, age, the year and who the president was. Completely confused, I realized I was lying on a skinny mattress in what looked like a tiny room holding medical equipment. I could hear sirens and felt the familiar feeling of speeding in a car down the highway. The man firing questions at me informed me that I had had a seizure and everything was going to be okay. In my lethargic state I had no idea what he meant by seizure. He recognized my perplexed facial expression and told me we would be at the hospital soon and my parents were meeting us there. Safe to say that was not the day I went to pick up my driver’s license.

The inside of an ambulance.

High school felt like a never ending uphill battle. I spent most of it testing different anti-seizure medications, trying to find one less likely to make me pass out in class or make my reaction time for volleyball slower.

After graduation, I enrolled at Whittier College. One day, I had a seizure in my dorm room and woke up to a group of girls crowding my door as once again paramedics asked: “What year is it?” and “Who is the president?”

School became increasingly difficult. I had trouble staying awake during class, couldn’t finish homework without falling asleep and often had to leave or miss class because I had had an uncomfortable aura, like the one I experienced before my seizure on the way to the DMV.

Not all auras lead to grand mal seizures, but they still make normal activities difficult, and stressing my body with low sleep and lots of caffeine can make seizures more likely. These circumstances came back to bite me when I tried to fly to France one summer. We were in the air when I had an aura, and just as I mischievously decided to use the threat of a seizure to scare the annoying people sitting next to me, I followed through on the threat! I remember reaching down for my medication and waking up on the ground in Arizona after the plane made an emergency landing.

As you can imagine, collegiate stressors (low sleep, high caffeine, etc) weren’t ideal. After three semesters of struggling with poor grades, I left school and came home to find another solution. After having little luck in southern California we heard about Dr. Orrin Devinsky, an epileptologist at New York University, who wrote one of the first books for families dealing with epilepsy.

I was a little taken aback when I met Dr. Devinsky. He told me there was a way I could be free of epilepsy, that I could drive and study, play volleyball without risking another seizure, and shed the fear of forcing a commercial plane to land. The answer, he said, was brain surgery, to remove brain tissue originating the seizures. The prospect of having total control over my body again sounded great, but as the daughter of two scientists, I decided to research the possible outcomes of the surgery. I do not recommend watching YouTube videos of brain surgery before undergoing it. I was terrified and for the first time I found myself crying from the fear.

The first time I began testing to see if I was a candidate for surgery I spent two weeks at the UCSD hospital to find out where my seizures were manifesting in my brain. We needed to observe a seizure in action. Sometimes you think being brought food in bed and binge watching netflix sounds like a nice idea, but after lying there, unable to move, videotaped 24/7 and having electrodes glued to your head, you realize being able to make your own food is pretty great. Two weeks went by but I had no seizure to show for it and therefore no data to help find the seizure locus.

A couple months later I tried again at NYU under the supervision of Dr. Devinsky. There I immediately told them I wanted to be off medication, I was not going to sleep or eat, and drinking was going to be at a minimum to push my body towards a seizure. By the end of the week I had a fantastic grand-mal seizure with loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. Once the seizure took place and all the physicians were happy with the data, we moved on to other tests. Among these, I found the WADA test fascinating–you are conscious while they put one side of your brain to sleep and you partially lose the ability to speak! After this test showed that my speech would not be impaired by the loss of the epileptic locus, we scheduled the surgery.

Classic Cubist art by Picasso, representing Chantal's experience on her post-op medication.
Picasso – Weeping Woman 1937

The surgery took eight hours and when I came out all I really remember is seeing my parents and having the biggest headache of my life. Again I was confined to a bed but this time I was welcomed by surrealist hallucinations from the wonderful medications I was given for the pain. I remember a Picasso-style head coming out of my knee, a fat blue bird which belonged in a Disney movie flying in and sitting on my surgeon’s shoulder, and someone walking into the room and placing a vase into a painting. Most of the hallucinations were odd enough to make me suspicious, so I asked my mom to confirm these things weren’t happening. Dr. Devinsky told me the surgery was a success and showed me with his pinky nail how tiny the pieces (the whole right hippocampus, right amygdala and a piece of the right temporal lobe) they removed were. The next day Dr. Devinsky brought the amazing pictures they made for me–I could see my open skull and the pieces they removed laid out on a table.

MRI Scans showing Chantal's brain following surgery and recovery, the right temporal lobe is largely missing.
MRI Scans showing Chantal’s brain following surgery and recovery. L/R indicate Chantal’s left/right orientation.

After multiple days in the ICU they let me go and about a week after the surgery I was able to take a shower. Because I was so weak I had to have my mother stand in the shower with me to wash my hair while I sat in a chair for a few days. Next I vomited all over the bed because I tapered off the steroids too quickly.

Finally the day came to fly back home to San Diego and I was happy and ready. While I wasn’t afraid of making the plane land, my mom was freaked out and had both of us take Xanax and do calming exercises before boarding. To our luck, I looked bad enough to be taken past all the lines at the airport and on the plane I was given as many pillows and covers as I wanted. So far, Dr. Devinsky had made good on his promises. I was excited to be home and out of the New York stink.

We landed safely, but upon seeing my dog, something felt off. Driving home something felt odd and my room didn’t seem like my own. I was in constant fear in my room and forced my mom to sleep on the floor in my room each night. I couldn’t sleep, two days later I had a terrifying psychotic break and believed aliens took my brain and I was in the wrong body. My parents rushed me to the emergency room as I repeated that we were little toys in a child’s game. The doctors there gave me antipsychotics and while they did not work perfectly, my mind slowed and I was able to sleep again.

A month later, I joined a brain rehab program where I learned to walk without requiring to focus on my balance, retrained my memory with games and boosted my confidence. It would be several months before I knew whether the surgery had been successful, but I was eager to get back to school and move on with my life. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready. It was naïve to expect greatness from myself just a few months after brain surgery. Instead, I bombed my classes and felt utterly defeated. I withdrew from school and decided to move to Germany to live with my grandparents and to work on my German. I took multiple German classes and began teaching and tutoring English at a nearby high school. After two years, I returned to San Diego and re-enrolled at Mira Costa community college and this time my grades were better than I had ever imagined. In 2014, I was accepted to UC Davis and graduated in March 2017.

While I have been seizure free for 7 years I do think about it at least once a day, at 9 pm when I take my lamotrigine. Before the surgery I was on 600 milligrams of lamotrigine and now I am only on 150 milligrams. The surgery is such a success and has completely changed my life for the better. It allows me to taper off completely if I so choose. I began tapering every three months starting last year. Once I got to 150 mg,  Dr. Devinsky and another epileptologist said I should really think about staying on the medication, so I stopped tapering off due to fear. You don’t really know the risk of having another seizure until you have one, even after the surgery.

I still watch how much coffee I drink. I never drink energy drinks and am known to order Shirley temples at the bar. I will probably never go to a music festival because of the flashing lights (even though that has never been a trigger) and I still get scared if I don’t take my medicine before midnight (Cinderella syndrome ;P). Although I am considered ‘cured’, no one really knows and in the end it’s all a gamble. I don’t think I will ever feel completely comfortable with the idea of not taking an anti-seizure medication. Recently, I was told that every time I meet someone I immediately open up with epilepsy and brain surgery. It’s because having a disorder like epilepsy can take over and reroute your life. I am 27 years old, have just now graduated college, and epilepsy and brain surgery are the only things I feel I can talk about to make people forget my age and limited accomplishments.

The biggest wish I have is for all physicians to be fully informed about epilepsy and how common it is. At 12 years old, if my physician paid better attention and maybe knew more about the disorder, my seizure disorder would have been caught earlier and I could have began anti-seizure medication earlier. With fewer simple partial seizures my chances of growing out of epilepsy could have been higher.

To the researchers, surgeons and neurologists that allowed me to have a successful surgery, I am so grateful and amazed by the techniques and findings you make! While in Davis, I worked in a memory lab on campus where I both participated in studies about the hippocampus and served as a research assistant. I have now moved back to my home town of San Diego and started a short 6-week medical assistant course in order to see what the medical field is like on the other side. If I like it, I hope to go to grad school for a career in the medical field. Having a medical professional that has experienced the patient side and gone through your experiences is so important but lacking in most situations. I wish I had been able to talk to someone like this before the surgery so I could ask questions or they could tell me things I’d never thought of. I’d like to make my way to working in neurology because I would like to be the one to make someone feel safe and understood, just as the nurse in the emergency room did for me.

This reflection article was written by Chantal about her experiences of epilepsy and the treatments she has undergone. Chantal is happy to be contacted by our readers, to do so please use our Contact Us form and we will pass on your message.

Images: Ambulance; Weeping Woman Picasso

Edited by Kira and Jon

Mini-Update of Neuroscience News

Our regular postings have been interrupted by the holiday period and several conferences, so until we have things back to normal we have a small update of neuroscience news!

Firstly, The Brain Domain will be presenting at the Neuropalooza conference later this month. Good luck to all the other presenters! Remember to check out our Join Us page if you’re interested in writing for The Brain Domain!

In other news, a new board game has appeared on kickstarter. It’s called ‘DNA Ahead Game & More‘, and is designed to help educate players about the history and current thinking of DNA in science. The overall aim of the project is to increase awareness of genetics, by making it accessible and interactive at home! It looks to be an interesting project, definitely worth checking out, maybe even worth backing?


Can we cure drug addiction with more drugs? – Oly

Work published by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina has demonstrated that by activating the neurons of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) relapse of cocaine use in rats can be reduced. It works because cocaine hijacks a normally very useful and normal brain behaviour: when the brain is exposed to high levels of neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine), it forms powerful cue memories associating that neurotransmitter influx with environmental cues. In this instance, upon encountering that familiar environment this associated memory creates an intense desire for that influx, and pushes cocaine users to relapse. The vmPFC plays a pivotal role in extinction of associated memories, so by activating it that intense desire, and thus the relapse behaviour, could be repressed.

The researchers used a viral injection to add designer receptors to the vmPFCs neurons, then they delivered a drug that activates those designer receptors specifically to increase vmPFC activity. This suppressed the pathological component of the cued memory response and relapse due to cued memory reduced significantly. So yes, the lab group are hoping that they will be able to help drug addicts with a different drug!

Source: J.Neuroscience


Social Neuroscience: MEG talks to MEG – Rachael

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a functional neuroimaging technique that records magnetic fields produced by electrical brain activity. MEG is used by many researchers to investigate social cognition. However, studies into how the brain processes information during social interactions typically have one common limitation…. there is only one person’s brain being monitored at one time! Researchers in Finland have introduced a novel MEG dual scanning approach, where they connect two MEG scanners at different centres (5km apart) via the internet, and the two respective subjects talk over landlines. MEG has very good temporal resolution, so it is a good candidate for studying something as dynamic and unpredictable as social interactions.  They managed to create a stable and short-latency audio connection (the subjects could not perceive the lag) which had accurate synchronisation of the two MEG scanners. They recorded auditory evoked cortical responses, and showed them to be similar in the two subjects.

Their study is a proof of concept, that can hopefully be extended to connecting MEG labs all over the world. Once some improvements and technical barriers have been overcome (e.g. including a stable visual link) many interesting questions within social neuroscience can start to be unravelled.

Source: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

Dogs and Coffee Shops on the Brain

Dogs understand human, but do you understand Dog?

If you’ve ever heard the claim that dogs don’t understand what you’re saying to them, only how you say it, then it’s time to check your facts! An MRI study in Hungary has established dogs not only process intonation, but also words. Dogs need both words and intonation to be positive to activate their reward centre. So saying “Aren’t you a stupid dog?” in a praising manner won’t fly any more…

Watch this video for a quick overview
Read a bit more about it here

14331503_10153787517670785_1809221900_n


Got writing work to do? Going to Coffee shops is no longer just for the pretentious! It’s just common sense.

All hipster-jokes aside, have you ever noticed that sometimes you get more done working in a Coffee Shop? Is it the background noise? The caffeinated air? A change of scenery? Perhaps, but it may actually be because concentration is contagious. A new study has found when you sit near people working hard, then your efforts also improve, regardless of whether you can see what they’re working on or not. It’s far from conclusive (we have a couple of questions ourselves), but this could go some way to establishing why some of us prefer to work in “free wifi establishments” instead of in the office.

Read some more about it here
Read the original paper here

Image sourced from imgur

Organ Donation: A No-Brainer, Right?

Organ donation. It’s an unusual topic for neuroscience (unless you’re talking about this), but the brain might just present the biggest issue preventing the advancement of this essential field. Why? Because a recent innovation relies on growing human organs inside pigs, and the initial studies show that we risk human cells entering the pig brains. What if their brains become too human? What if they start to think like us? Could we end up with a new race of Pig-men? It’s an intriguing idea (that might make you feel a little weird inside), but before we think about the ethical implications of an interspecies brain, let’s think about how this all came about.

The ‘Organ Deficit’

Anyone who has ever tuned into a dodgy medical drama on daytime telly will know that sometimes organs need to be replaced, and without that replacement organ, the patient will die. The problem is getting hold of donor organs is difficult! You need it to be fresh, you need it to be compatible with the patient, and you need it before the patient’s time runs out. What people often forget is that you also need to hope someone else tragically died before their time, but also before you do.

If that wasn’t distressing enough, if you look at the numbers you’ll see the current system is not only morbid, but also failing us. In the USA alone twenty two people die everyday waiting for an organ1 and those who are lucky enough to receive one often have to suffer for many years before hand2. We are suffering from an Organ Deficit, and this one won’t be fixed with a little austerity.

organ-donation

Wouldn’t it be better if a doctor could simply say “Your kidney is failing, but don’t worry, we’ll just grow you a new one and you’ll be right as rain again!”? Nobody would have to die to get that organ, or suffer for years on a waiting list. The only people who might actually suffer are the scriptwriters of those medical dramas (and mildly at that). Growing new tissue for patients is a core aim of scientists working in regenerative medicine. But there is a list of problems that have to be overcome first. Unfortunately, that ‘list of problems’ isn’t a short one, and despite decades of research, several big leaps, and even a few Nobel prizes, the end still isn’t in sight. Meanwhile, another day passes and another twenty two people have missed their window.

What we need is a temporary fix; some way to increase the number of organs available to help the people in need now, and allow scientists to continue researching in the background for the ideal solution. Something with a fancy long name (and an unnecessary number of g’s) – something like Xenogeneic Organogenesis.

Xeno-whatnow?

Ok, I admit, I made that term up. But it makes sense! Let me translate. ‘Xenogeneic’ means working with cells of two different species, and ‘Organogenesis’ means growing organs. Simply put, we’re talking about growing new human organs inside of host animals. How? Well, in a breakthrough paper Kobayashi et al.3 demonstrated a way to grow fully formed rat organs inside a mouse.

This was achieved through a technique called Blastocyst Complementation; when an embryo is injected with stem cells from a second animal. The resulting animal is called a ‘chimeric animal’, because it is made of cells from the two different animals, and those cells are genetically independent of each other. This has been successfully achieved in animals of the same species before (e.g. putting mouse stem cells into a mouse embryo), but here they crossed species by creating a mouse-rat chimera and a rat-mouse chimera (See image A, below). The chimeras were morphologically similar to the animal species of the host embryo (and mother), but crucially, the chimeras were composed of cells derived from both species, randomly placed across the animals. In other words, whilst the mouse-rat chimera looked like a mouse, if you looked closely at any body part then you would see it was in fact built of both mouse and rat cells. The researchers believe this happened because the stem cells don’t alter the ‘blueprints’ that the embryo already has. Instead, they grow just like other embryonic stem cells, following chemical directions given to them and gradually building the animal according to those instructions.

AB

Satisfied they could use blastocyst complementation to create inter-species chimeric animals, the researchers went one step further. They genetically modified a mouse embryo to prevent it from growing a pancreas (in image B this is called the ‘Pdx1-/-’ strain: a name that refers to the gene that was removed) and injected unmodified rat stem cells into the embryo. They were hoping that by preventing the mouse embryo’s stem cells from being able to form a pancreas, the chemical directions to build a pancreas would only be followed by the newly introduced rat stem cells. And guess what? It worked! They reported the pancreas inside the Pdx1-/- strain was built entirely of rat cells (See image B, above).

This got a lot of people very excited! Would it be possible to do this with human organs? Could we farm human organs like we do food? Could we even use iPS technology to grow autologous patient-specific organs to improve the transplantation process? The lab has now begun tackling these sorts of questions, starting by testing the viability of pig-human chimeric embryos (pig embryos with human stem cells, to make pigs built with human cells), to see if the two cell types will contribute to the animal in the same way the mouse and rat cells did.

Freaky! Is this why we’re worried about creating a race of Pig-men?

Yep. What I didn’t explain above is that the brains of those chimeric animals, like the hearts, were also comprised of both mouse and rat cells. Considering that the scientific community generally accepts it is our incredible brain that separates us as a species, what would happen if human brain cells made their way into the pig brain? How human could they become? Would they begin to look like us? Act like us? Talk like us? Even think like us? How human would they have to become before we gave them human rights? Where is the legal, moral and ethical line between animal and human when one creature is a mixture of the two?

Most people (not all) would agree that sacrificing a farm animal’s life to save a human’s is an acceptable cause. After all, we already do that for bacon… a cause that even I (an avid carnivore) cannot claim as exactly necessary. But sacrificing a half pig, half human? That sounds like something you’d find in a horror story!

Even though many scientists believe an intelligent pig-human chimera is biologically implausible (let alone a speaking one), no-one is willing to say it’s impossible. Concerns over a potentially altered cognitive state have led to the US based NIH (a.k.a USA government funding central) to announce that they will not be supporting any research that involves introducing human cells into non-human embryos5. The fact is we don’t know enough about how the human brain develops or works. We don’t understand how the biological structures, electronic signals, and chemical balances translate to the gestalt mind experience. We don’t have one easy answer that makes “being a human” and “being a pig” distinct enough, to know how to interact morally with a pig-human chimera. And that makes me (and probably you) rather uncomfortable.

It’s also giving me all kinds of flashbacks to my school theatre group’s rendition of Animal Farm (I played Boy. Sounds like a rubbish part right? You’re wrong. He’s the narrator!). I can’t help but wonder if Orwell ever imagined his metaphorical work could have literal connotations too…

animalfarm“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Fortunately, nobody wants to create pig-men (at least I don’t think there is a Dr. Moreau in the research team?), and the pig-human embryos being generated are being terminated long before they grow into anything substantial. The lab wants to be careful, to understand the potential consequences before even considering letting a pig-human foetus go to full term. Naturally this means there’s a heck of a lot of work to be done, but xenogeneic organogenesis (copyright: Me) is still decades ahead of other organ replacement models. Continued work could mean viable results a lot sooner, saving countless lives. At the very least, it would enable us to study natural organ growth directly, fast-tracking dish-driven stem cell models.

Is this really the best solution available to solve the Organ Deficit?

Good question reader! Let’s bring this discussion back to a simpler solution. Late last year (1st Dec 2015) Wales (home of The Brain Domain) became the first country in the UK to change the law to make organ donation ‘opt-out’ instead of ‘opt-in’.

This isn’t a new idea. Many other countries have implemented an opt-out system before, and generally statistics look good6. Yet there is ongoing debate about whether this change will be sufficient alone7. Cultural variations and infrastructural differences in health care systems have a large impact on the effectiveness of such legislation, but generally speaking we should see some improvement. If that improvement is sufficient, then the policy will likely be rolled out across the rest of the UK (fingers crossed we beat the four years it took to get the plastic bag charge across the river Severn!). But if that is still not enough, then we’ll just have to hope those at Stanford can find a way to make xenogeneic organogenesis a real no-brainer.

References:

1) http://www.organdonor.gov/about/data.html

2) https://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/real-life-stories/people-who-are-waiting-for-a-transplant/

3) Kobayashi et al. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867410008433

4) Example image taken from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867410009529

5) https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-15-158.html

6) http://webs.wofford.edu/pechwj/Do%20Defaults%20Save%20Lives.pdf

7) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-34932951

Killing cancer with your brain!

It is predicted that in the UK over one thousand people will be diagnosed with cancer every day this year 1. Those unlucky enough to develop the most common form of brain cancer (Glioblastoma) will typically only survive 12 to 15 months 2. But what if you could kill the cancer with your brain? Unfortunately, I don’t mean cancer-fighting psychic powers (I know, the picture of Jean Grey is misleading… it was a cruel hook!). Instead, I’m referring to a new use for neural stem cells (NSC), to do the job of tracking and killing down cancerous cells for us. Believe it or not there are scientists working on such an intervention, and a new paper 3 published last month in Nature Communications describes an exciting advancement that could help bring this strange therapy to a cancer clinic near you.

neuroendoport-case-study-glioblastoma-pre-surgical An example of a Glioblastoma

NSCs are unusual for various reasons, but of particular interest here, they’re able to migrate through the brain towards tumorous cancer cells. By engineering these cells to also secret anti-cancer molecules, they become natural cancer hunters capable of both finding and killing tumorous cells. This has been demonstrated as an effective therapy in various pre-clinical models, but the difficulty has been finding a good cell source to move this concept into clinics. Ideally we need something autologous (to stop our immune systems killing the NSC) and readily available. Unfortunately, the naturally occurring NSCs we all have exist deep within our brains (making them hard to obtain), and haven’t been genetically modified to secrete those important anticancer molecules (they’re not natural cancer killers).

Previously, scientists have wondered if we could make our own NSCs for this treatment by using induced Pluripotent Stem cells (iPSC). To learn more about iPSCs watch this short video:

iPSCs seem like they would be ideal because they are easy to get hold of (we can grow them from a skin sample), genetic modification can be made during the initial generation process, and they can be autologous to the patient. However, labs that have transplanted NSCs grown from iPSCs into the brain frequently report that iPSCs also have a really REALLY frustrating tendency to become cancerous tumour cells… and you’re not going to fix brain cancer by sticking more in there!

So what’s different about this paper? Simple; they used transdifferentiation. What the heck is transdifferentiation? I’m glad you asked. It’s a method similar to iPSC generation, except that instead of reprogramming cells to a pluripotent state, you reprogram them directly into the cell type you want. In this case they took fibroblasts (skin cells) and transdifferentiated them into NSCs, and named these new cells induced neural stem cells (iNSC). Crucially, these iNSC don’t seem to have the same tendency to become cancerous, yet they retain all those benefits of iPSCs outlined above! The researchers found that by injecting these iNSC into mice with glioblastomas, their survival increased between 160%-220%!

The iNSCs aren’t ready for clinics yet. For instance, one problem the paper outlines is that their iNSCs need a structure to help target the right parts of the brain, because otherwise they wander off before they’ve killed all the cancer. But, because these cells work so well, the scientists are confident the work only needs refinements*, so maybe one day in the not too distant future we can expect to be killing brain cancers with our brains!**

  1. Statistics Fact Sheet, 2015, Macmillan Cancer Support
  2. World Cancer Report, 2014, World Health Organisation
  3. Bagó, J.R., Alfonso-Pecchio, A., Okolie, O., Dumitru, R., Rinkenbaugh, A., Baldwin, A.S., Miller, C.R., Magness, S.T. and Hingtgen, S.D. (2016) Therapeutically engineered induced neural stem cells are tumour-homing and inhibit progression of glioblastoma. Nature communications7.

*Of course, ‘refinements’ usually translates to another decade or two of work.

**Disclaimer: This statement is technically true, though your ‘cancer killing brain’ might actually be skin cells that have been turned into genetically modified brain cells. 😉 TECHNICALITY!