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MRC Cancer Unit at the 22nd Cambridge Science Festival

last modified Apr 11, 2016 11:59 AM

The 22nd Cambridge Science Festival was hailed as the biggest and best event ever by the organizers! The MRC CU was out in force at the Biomedical Campus on the last day of the Festival on March 20. 

Recent years at the Cambridge Science Festival have seen a number of events being run on the Biomedical Campus (a move from a city centre location). While the MRC CU have previously staged talks/activities at the Clinical School, this year saw a change from this, with the CU working closely with colleagues from the Cambridge Cancer Centre (Department of Oncology and CRUK-CI) to present a series of talks and activities along the theme of 'Discover the world of cancer research'. The MRC CU ran six activities at the festival this year, which were based at the CRUK-CI.

Festival posters
Some of our display posters

A number of associated posters were made, explaining the work that we do at the Cancer Unit and providing some further information on the range of activities that we were running. A number of group leaders from the Unit also gave talks at the Festival. Prof Rebecca Fitzgerald gave a talk at Mill Lane on March 16 (Does a pill on a string hold the answer for earlier diagnosis of oesophageal cancer), while both Prof Ashok  Venkitaraman (Making new medicines for old diseases) and Dr Shamith Samarajiwa (Battling cancer with data science) presented at the series of talks that were organised for the CRUK-CI Lecture Theatre on March 20. There was a great turn-out for the talks on the day, with many of the sessions at capacity.


Venkitaraman group 2
Members of the Venkitaraman group ready for public engagement action!
There were a total of 18 volunteers from the Hutchison/MRC research centre at this year’s Festival. For many of us, this was our first time participating in the Festival, so it was a unique and exciting experience for all involved! A number of new activities were generated for this year's Festival, which proved to be very popular with the crowds! Volunteers from the Venkitaraman group developed a game based around the concept of designing a cancer medicine to attack cancer DNA. They designed a number of shapes, representing drug molecules, which were placed into a ‘lucky dip’ box. Visitors were then asked to select a molecule to see if it would be a good fit to target cancer DNA. The efficacy of the molecule was determined by the extent of DNA damage, which was represented by a series of cell-based images.





Antibody and cell-sorting game

Online antibody game

Members of the Shields and Vanharanta groups joined forces to develop and run a ‘Day in the life of a scientist’ activity. This involved a number of games revolving around commonly used laboratory techniques. These included an antibody generation and labelling game (labelling of tissue samples for microscopy) and a cell sorting activity (flow cytometry).





Computational activity
Computational activity in action
The two computational groups also joined forces (Hall group and Samarajiwa) to generate a pattern-searching activity, which demonstrated the role computers can play in detecting mutations in individual patients’ cancers. Paper codes were handed out to visitors to our activities (representing normal or mutant genes). Raspberry Pis (representing desktop sequencers) were then used to scan these codes to determine where each person’s code falls on a resulting graph (normal or mutant gene). This was used to demonstrate how computers can be used to determine genetic patterns of different cancer subtypes and how these patterns can be used to design personalised cancer therapies.

This activity was run alongside a ‘Bioinformatics Tombola’ activity, which was run by the Fitzgerald group. Each visitor to this activity was asked to select a coloured egg from the ‘tombola’ (representing a cancer cell), within which contained a short DNA sequence. Visitors were then asked to try and find this sequence within much larger sequence (a difficult task!). This was used to demonstrate the values of bioinformatics to find mutation patterns in the genomes of cancer patients. It also demonstrated how DNA sequencing technology can applied to characterise each patient’s cancer and to match patients to the right therapy for their type of cancer.



Invasion maze'Norman' and the Cytosponge activity

While many new activities were generated for this year’s Festival, some very popular and successful activities from previous festivals were brought out from storage and used once again! The invasion maze proved very popular with young and older children alike, who tried to make it through the maze in as quick a time as possible. It was a great way to demonstrate the importance of tumour cell invasion to early metastasis as well as the processes involved (with some help from our colourful poster!).

Many people in the Unit will also be familiar with ‘Norman’, a life-sized model of a human torso, which was developed over a number of years by the Fitzgerald group. In this model, the front is opened out to reveal the heart, lungs and gastrointestinal tract. This model was used to demonstrate some interesting biological processes to schools at the Schools Roadshow over many years. It has also proven very effective in demonstrating the how the Cytosponge™ (pill on a string) technology can be used to detect cancer at its earliest stages. Zarah Abdullahi presented this activity for the Fitzgerald group. She also brought along some slides of tissue representing healthy and diseased oesophageal tissue and used these to show visitors what these two tissue types look like under the microscope. 





Conical evaluation
Conical evaluation showing majority of visitors agreed that the experience enhanced their understanding of cancer research


This is the first year that we have run our talks and activities from CRUK-CI and it has proven to be very successful! Many of the talks were full on the day and all of our volunteers reported great interest from the visitors that took part in their activities! Indeed, CRUK-CI reported that the crowd was significantly bigger than previous years. This success is largely due to the great enthusiasm and support from all of our wonderful volunteers! Thanks to all those that generously gave of their time to participate; giving talks, designing activities and posters, setting up the stands before the event and helping out on the day itself!

We think this conical flask on the left sums up the success of the event quite nicely. We asked our visitors if the event had improved their understanding of cancer research. We were delighted to see a majority of yes (blue discs) responses. Looking forward to the next round of public engagement events coming up later on this year!