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Image credit: Peter Canning

You might reasonably expect to be accosted by a double-glazing salesperson or someone shaking a bucket for charity as you go about your weekly shop – but you’d probably be pretty surprised if someone intercepted you on your way out and asked if you know what your immune system does. That’s exactly what a team of scientists from the WIMM did in June this year, in collaboration with the Department of Oncology – they took their research to the public, driving all over Oxfordshire to stand in shopping centres and tell the public about the incredible science that their taxes help to fund. In this blog, two DPhil students who volunteered for the event, Layal Liverpool and Helen Winter, tell us about their experience of being part of this innovative project.

Layal Liverpool: DPhil student in Jan Rehwinkel’s lab, HIU (WIMM)

In the first annual MRC Festival of Medical Research, scientists from MRC-funded research centres across the country took to the streets to share their discoveries with the general public.

Researchers at the WIMM teamed up with researchers from the department of Oncology to represent the University of Oxford. These volunteers, led by public engagement officers Bryony Graham and Martin Christlieb, travelled around Oxfordshire to talk about exciting and on-going research in the field of cancer immunotherapy.

Through a fun, interactive game they demonstrated how the immune system doesn’t just fight bacteria and viruses but can fight cancer too; how it is that cancer cells can sometimes escape this defence mechanism, and how immunotherapy aims to ensure that the immune system always triumphs in the end.

Members of the public were presented with chocolate balls representing cells in the body and were challenged to play the role of the immune system by deciding which were the “good” cells and which were the “bad”.

The first clue was that the “good” cells had a message on their surface, which read “DON’T EAT ME!”, whereas the bad guys lacked this. This was a cue for our enthusiastic volunteers to explain that all healthy cells carry this signal to tell the immune system that they are harmless. Of course “DON’T EAT ME!” signals come in several forms and usually go by significantly less catchy names like CD47.

Cells lacking the “DON’T EAT ME!” signal are infected or damaged. Most people sussed out which were the infected cells because they were a different colour, but spotting the cancer cells was slightly trickier because they were the same colour as the healthy cells. This was to demonstrate that cancer cells are derived from healthy cells that have gone bad, and so are hard for the immune system to spot.

Luckily our immune cells are expert at spotting the good guys from the bad and so can recognise the cancer cells as foreign and destroy them.

“So why do people still get cancer?” people reasonably asked. Our volunteers then explained that some cancer cells manage to keep their “DON’T EAT ME!” signal, allowing them to disguise as innocent, healthy cells, which the immune system is trained to ignore.

Participants then got a chance to help the immune system recognise and destroy these under-cover cancer cells using two different cancer immunotherapy strategies based on research at Oxford University.

One way they could help reveal cancer cells to the immune system was by covering up their “DON’T EAT ME!” signals using a sticker labelled “DRUG”. This represented the anti-CD47 antibody currently in clinical trials for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia.

Another strategy was to introduce a virus, which specifically targets cancer cells over healthy cells. These oncolytic viruses were represented as Velcro strips on the cancer cells.

Still acting as the immune system, members of the public were encouraged to put on a pair of woolen gloves and try to distinguish the cancer cells from the healthy cells. Of course the cancer cells stuck to the woolen gloves through the Velcro, whereas the normal cells didn’t – a simple way to demonstrate the selectivity of this approach.

All participants were rewarded with a chocolate ball, but only after they had employed at least one form of cancer immunotherapy to overcome the “DON’T EAT ME!” signal. The oncolytic virus game was particularly popular with very young members of the public who were keen to pick up as many chocolate “cancer cells” as possible!

The simplicity of both activities meant everyone could get involved and the combination of our enthusiastic volunteers and the prospect of free chocolate allowed us to engage almost 1,000 passers-by in market squares and town centres in Newbury, High Wycombe, Swindon, Aylesbury, Banbury and Witney.

The overwhelming feedback from the people we engaged with was that this kind of research is extremely worthwhile and they were pleased to know their tax money is being well spent!

Being a volunteer was fun and rewarding, a great reminder of how exciting working in science is.

Helen Winter: Clinical Research Fellow (Department of Oncology)

As a clinician I have spent most of my working life in a hospital – so welcome the opportunity to get outside the clinic and see the real world as experienced by many of our patients and families.

Engaging with the public for the MRC Festival of Medical Research was an exciting way of feeding back to the men, women and children who fundraise, support and wave a flag for cancer research.

It was great to see people enjoying hearing about the science, telling us their experiences of cancer and what it means to them for researchers to update them on the research that is ongoing to improve our knowledge of cancer.

As a DPhil student I went with the expectation of spreading knowledge and imparting information but surprisingly ended up feeling like I was learning and also felt humbled and privileged by the opportunity to interact on a level playing field on people’s home turf.

The questions that kids, people that have had cancer and people from other fields of work ask add another perspective to the research questions, and make you remember why are you doing this.I would advise anyone who would like to meet the people who participate in research, support the research, and fund the research we are doing – to sign up and get engaged!

Find out more about Science in the Supermarket via the MRC video below, or by reading this post by Martin Christlieb for the MRC blog Insight.