Team:HKUST-Hong Kong/Presentation


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The steady increase in wealth of East Asian nations during the past few decades has seen the population transition towards diets comprising more fats and less fibre. And there is general consensus among the scientific and medical community that such a diet leads to higher incidence of colorectal cancer. Public health bodies including the World Health Organization (WHO) and National Cancer Centre of Singapore (NCCS) therefore predict that the current increasing trends in colorectal cancer will only continue.

Hong Kong, being a region that started developing earlier, observed a 190% increase in the crude rate of colorectal cancer incidence between 1983 and 2006. (See this document.) It is on track to overtake lung cancer as Hong Kong’s deadliest form of cancer.

Thus we decided that at least one of our human practice activities would have to involve interacting with the local cancer therapy community in a certain way.


Our work this year on colorectal cancer happened to coincide with a large awareness campaign effort by the Hong Kong Cancer Fund (HKCF) on the same topic. It therefore made perfect sense for us to contact them with the intention of forming a collaboration.

The HKCF is an influential force in Hong Kong with interests in promoting awareness about cancer and providing psychotherapy for cancer patients. They also provide funding for cancer therapy-related research efforts.

We approached them in the hope of spreading word about synthetic biology and other topics on the forefront of life science and bioengineering, and in particular inform them on notable ways cancer treatment research is being pushed forward. Introduction to the field of synthetic biology was very exciting for our HKCF contacts. We were soon invited to speak about the topic at the Fund’s Wong Tai Sin ‘CancerLink’ centre.

Our audience was aged within their 30s and 40s and were (mostly female) volunteer nurses and administrative staff who work closely with recovering cancer patients. Some directly administer psychotherapy to these patients. We were asked to assume little to no scientific knowledge background, which was to be an extremely important factor in our considerations. Countless iGEM teams in the past have had to deal with the problem of communicating synthetic biology in a straightforward way. We approached it by employing several (sometimes cute) analogies and providing a significant amount of time for Q&A.

Presentation Details

Five members of our team went to Wong Tai Sin on the 26th of July, three of whom delivered the presentation. The presentation was divided into the four sections detailed below.

The iGEM Competition
We started with an explanation of what our team is doing by introducing the competition and the aims defining it. Emphasis was placed on dissecting the competition name and delivering the concept of a ‘Genetically Engineered Machine’. A coffee machine analogy was used to explain a machine in terms of inputs and outputs and the statement was made that a living machine can be similarly summarized.

Synthetic Biology
As the term ‘synthetic biology’ itself may be unfamiliar, we started with ‘genetic engineering’: a well-used term in the news and popular culture. To separate ‘old-style’ genetic engineering from that represented by synthetic biology, we explained that humans have achieved the ability to design living organisms indirectly, by designing the DNA placed in them. Three major steps in research and technology leading to synthetic biology as we know it today were reported: 1) determining the functions of genes, 2) recombinant DNA technology and 3) DNA synthesis.

Our Project & Colorectal Cancer
To provide an example of what synthetic biology solutions could do for cancer treatment, we introduced our project’s design in terms of a bacterial ‘soldier’. Like a soldier, our bacteria possesses bullets (the BMP2 chemokine), a gunsight (the cell wall expression recognition peptide) and training to prevent it from causing excess damage (the xylose-inducible promoter and toxin-antitoxin cassette).

Future of Cancer Treatment
Weaknesses of current cancer treatment methods (surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy) were highlighted. Aspects of treatment where synthetic biology could provide options were then discussed (drug discovery, targeting and drug delivery). The presentation was ended with reiteration that synthetic biology effectively amounts to engineering life; and thus is possessed of all the controversy and intrigue that statement implies.

A pair of slides from our presentation.

Q&A Session

In truth we did not plan it as such, but the Q&A session ended up lasting almost as long as our presentation itself. All team members present went up on stage and we were able to engage the audience in further discussion on synthetic biology in a freer, more conversational manner. Perhaps most importantly our audience could now receive responses in their native language, Cantonese. In retrospect, we found that with all assembled members present we could have provided a more organized and detailed explanation of synthetic biology than was achieved during the presentation itself.

The Q&A session was also the time to provide even more examples which could impress upon our audience the scope of synthetic biology and bring the subject within a more familiar territory. The topic of facial cleansers with living ingredients, for example, inspired greater interest.


Item 1
To convey the promise of synthetic biology a lot of information needs to be transferred. For iGEMers and others new to the field, think of how much further you had to take your previous knowledge to perform the tasks you do now. When educating younger students, professionals in other fields or anyone else to whom concepts of manipulating DNA is foreign, we must force ourselves back to the big picture and leave the technical details for later. Key points can be distilled down to: 1) living organisms are like machines/tools, 2) DNA defines function and 3) designing DNA leads to designing the functions of living organisms.

Item 2
Since synthetic biology is a wholly new concept, the participants of the synthetic biology educational activity you initiate will not have much to base their expectations of the activity on. In practice this means it is difficult to meet the personal interests of the audience because too few people understand synthetic biology well enough to be interested in it. We found on several occasions that for preliminary introduction to the topic, categorizing ‘synthetic biology’ as ‘genetic engineering’ helps considerably. ‘Genetic engineering’ is a term that came out earlier and is regularly used in mass-media. Most well-informed people recognize it and, more importantly, have some preconceptions as to what it is about.

Item 3
It is important to make synthetic biology relevant to your activity participants. This is done by giving examples of how the synthetic biology revolution can change some aspect of the status quo significant to them. If points like this are made you can expect your participants to remember them particularly well. These points also allow your participants to begin to grasp the breadth of the synthetic biology revolution. We made it clear to our audience that synthetic biology has significant potential in the field of cancer treatment. According to our post-presentation survey, that was the message they remembered the best.

Item 4
Lastly, remember that you can only do so much spreading the word of synthetic biology by yourselves. Make the primary aim of your educational activity to inspire your participants such that they continue to discuss the topic with others days after the activity. Inspire first and foremost by getting a clear and accurate message across. Should you be successful then the topic of synthetic biology will reach many more ears, and more minds will be put to work conceiving how the technology will develop.

***Presentation Appendix I: Our Post-presentation Survey***