In Mind the Gut, we are determined to fight the stigma associated with mental health by raising awareness of the physiological nature of disorders such as depression and anxiety. We're directly tackling this through the science sprouting from of our lab work: by drawing the focus to the physicochemical connection between gut microbiota and the brain for the treatment mental health disorders.
We've been involved in discussions with patients, practitioners,scientists and volunteers in charities to inquire about mental health issues. We also plan to use this as an opportunity to create awareness for the gut-brain axis which is quite a nascent field of research. This helps us ensure the relevance of our project to patients. We've organized events in collaboration with artists, museums and mental health organisations in order to start discussions with the general public and incorporate their ideas into our project. As of now there are two aspects that are needed to be considered:
- A few words on stigma - Education and public engagement: We have all heard of the word stigma. And in Mind the Gut, we set ourselves the goal of really understanding what it entails. Two main components of our iGEM project, Genetic Engineering and Mental Health served as the platform to devise what this concept really is about. And from those things we learnt, we couldn't but take action to ultimately bring forward more innovation and happiness to this world! .
- An evolving project - Integrated human practices: The way we learnt in Mind the Gut was through doing things. Talking to people beyond the bench allowed us to interact with different communities in a dynamic way. Finding out the impact of mental health treatments on people's lives allowed us to tackle the most common side effects and dosage concerns around medication. We therefore built genetic circuits incorporating new and improved biobricks assessing these purposes.
EventsThe Dragon Cafe and Photohonesty
Dragon Cafe: We visited this small pop-up cafe located in the crypt of a church in South London. in which every Monday creative activities (and yummy vegan food!) run throughout the day. Open for all and with a special focus on those who are either recovering from a mental health, this project sprouting from Mental Fight Club (http://mentalfightclub.com) runs creative activities (and serves yummy vegan food!) to those who pop by each Monday. Having the chance of presenting our work to a broad audience opened our perspectives and allowed us to bring to life the drive we have to explore all possibilities within Mind the Gut. As a follow-up to the session, we run interactive and open Q&A sessions where, working in small groups, members of the team discussed with those present what really matters in providing psychological care and treatment for mental health. .
Photohonesty: the name under which Graham Miller’s work can be found, drives the attention away from the photographer and towards principles behind the “accessible conceptual” through which stigma is targeted. In the words of Graham: “My aim is to make people stop and think and then get the message that I’m trying to communicate”. This then allows for an interaction which brings the the artist much closer to the observer, whose condition as such becomes challenged. In the exhibition and art discussion organized as part of Mind the Gut, the photographs were shown in outdoors metal canvases. This exhibition, The Most Important people in the World: Honesty, had been previously shown in the Scottish Mental Health Art and Film Festival. The large size of the images filling the room portrayed the intensity of the message conveyed by those who matter most in mental health. Their stories, arising from the moments (and sometimes days!) of interaction with the photojournalist, were also displayed besides them. As it turns out, Graham also has a day job in Agilent Technologies, sponsor of iGEM 2015, and hence the powerful discussions we had on stigma, art and bioscience.
In order to get a feel of what mental illness represents in people’s lives, we thought there couldn’t be a better idea than to bring people for an evening of open talk and performances under the theme of mental health and its associated stigma. So we contacted Spoken Word London, an open-mic based in an old underground venue of East London, and with the help of Patrick, its coordinator, we were able to promote our event and spark some curiosity among the City’s creative scene. Having discovered the mental health and arts charity CoolTan Arts, we got a taste of how creativity could be implemented as a means to recovery and stigma challenging. This way, we decided to bring our initiative of promoting this by including some of the artwork produced by patients suffering from mental distress. During the evening, the exhibition showcased in the back of Mully’s basement bar, our chosen venue. Next to it there stood a range of art postcards, donation boxes and books on the anthropological, poetical (and even cooking for our mind!) ways of perceiving mental health. The money fundraised went towards supporting charity’s principles based on something that really resonated with the purpose of our efforts within Mind the Gut.
We have been been involved in a number of discussions with leading scientists and healthcare professionals in the field of synthetic biology and mental health.
Prof. Dame Sue Bailey: Chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges as well as Consultant Child and Adolescent Forensic Psychiatrist. She is particularly involved in young people who experience mental health issues, social justice and youth justice systems.
Prof Glyn Lewis: Director of UCL Division of Psychiatry, Chair in Clinical Trials & Applied Epidemiological Psychiatry. He advised us on how to better understand the field of psychiatry and current treatments available for patients, as well as introducing us to the need for novel treatments that reduce side effects.
Dr. Eben Kirksey: we interviewed Eben about our project, a lecturer from Princeton University who has contributed to theoretical conversations in the social sciences, biology, the humanities, and the arts. After a long talk about the anthropological implications of our project and our ‘Hypersymbionts’ in which he was particularly interested, he told us that he would feature our collection in his latest book for Duke University Press.
Prof John Cryan: leading neuroscientist in the field of psychobiotics and the gut-brain axis, who was recently featured in the World’s most influential scientific minds. Our team travelled all the way up to Cork, Ireland, to meet up with Cryan, who updated us on current research and helped us to see our project potential. Furthermore, he helped us to gain a better understanding of gut-brain axis and redirect our research in some areas.
Art and designMood enhancement Collection
Through our art and design we aimed to analyse and explore the future implications of delivering genetically modified bacteria to possibly enhance our bodies and minds. Furthermore, we wanted to bring our project to the general public, by creating a collection of pictures with potential products that could be manufactured to deliver our genetically enhanced bacteria. The very background image on this page reflects this.
- We collaborated with Anna Dumitriu a renowned visual artist with a strong interest in microbiology, synthetic biology and ethics whose work blurs the boundaries between art and science. Working with Heather Macklyne in Bristol, this collaborative project gave rise to a range of new products for Anna’s Hypersymbiont Enhancement Salon (http://annadumitriu.tumblr.com/HypersymbiontSalon). Together, we reinvented the purpose of our Mind the Gut synthetic psychobiotics, bearing the TPH1 gene crucial for serotonin biosynthesis.
- Live probiotic bacteria were integrated into tabs and jellies, whereas freeze-dried colonies were turned into dust with an added sparkle. This brings us to the proposal that these bacteria which can make us ‘better’ - in this case, happier -can be incorporated into a range of products - toothpaste, lipstick and food. Having experienced an incredibly satisfying journey to the production of this collaborative bioart, we can only quote Anna back and thank her for allowing us to enter a new landscape for the exploration of our project. “My conversations with the UCL team and Heather have been fascinating and I'm learning a lot and also changing some of my prejudices about synthetic biology.” - Anna Dumitriu
This year, UCL iGEM team has decided to take a lead in debating the implications of our project and engaging with the public to address the ethical concerns raised by synthetic biology. Our team has therefore been looking deeply into the ethics of synthetic biology, particularly when it is applied to human health, as nowadays multiple social and ethical challenges are arising as a result of the development and expansion of this promising field.General public survey
We wanted to know the general public perception on the possibility of manufacturing probiotics containing engineered bacterial strains, and what their view on the ethics of this procedure and synthetic biology in general was. Furthermore, we asked them what they thought the future implications and concerns of synthetic biology could be and whether they believed that it would be beneficial for society or not. In order to do so we prepared a short survey for people to fill in through social media, and then we analysed the results and built the statistics.
Our survey was translated into 5 different languages including Spanish, French, Portuguese and German as we believed that this would help us reach a broader range of people and therefore provide us with more significant data.
Knowing the public perception in a novel and sometimes controversial field such as synthetic biology will allow us to tackle some of the ethical questions and concerns raised by society in order to maintain the public legitimacy and support.
We have been working closely with UCL Ethics to make sure our project met the requirements set by our university regarding the safeguarding of rights, safety, dignity and well-being of research participants. All our interviews and video assays were approved by the UCL Chair of the Departamental Ethics Comitee. Previous to the interview the participants were informed about the nature of the research, the format of the questions they will be asked, their content, their rights, and how we would treat the information they provided us. Moreover, we distributed Information sheets and Consent forms to all participants to ensure that they provided fully consent before participating in the interviews.