Festival-goers got more than they bargained for when they took a stroll through the new Green Futures science area at Glastonbury this year. Even when we got to the scene, we caused confusion – “The gene therapists? You want to be in Healing Fields, don’t you?”. Undeterred, we faced the astrologers with bated breath, and this was before the public toilets opened. We were about to become part of one of the most unique festivals in the world, determined to share our passion for the future (and current) use of gene therapy to treat disease.
To spread enthusiasm about the festival (or go viral as it were) we offered visitors the opportunity to get one of six different temporary tattoos; each represents an example of a gene therapy currently in or under development in the clinic. Embedded in each viral vector design was a unique QR code – scan to reveal the identity of the gene and disease the specific vector aims to treat, and how!
While we thought we’d nailed how to appeal to the skeptics while comforting those who thought they might get a gene therapy walk-in service out of a field (!), the reality behind the deluge of interest was overwhelming; almost every visitor was aware of or directly/indirectly affected by an ailment at stake. The concept of gene therapy as a medical treatment option, which many had heard of but didn’t know existed in practice, often seemed almost as implausible as Paul McCartney’s duet with Bruce Springsteen.
We successfully ‘transduced’ over 1000 volunteers, and while this might be a ‘little boy’ at such a huge festival, I was personally buzzed when BBC cameras rolled into the crowd during Sam Fender’s set at AAV — and lentiviral vector tattoos seen on shoulders and arms raised to the sky. I was just a little disappointed that we didn’t manage to trick Sam into stopping on his own.
If someone had told me a few years ago that I would go to Glastonbury and successfully encourage members of the public to temporarily get a virus tattooed on their arm, I might have had my doubts. But thanks in large part to one of these viral vectors (ChadOx1 delivering SARS-CoV-2 spikes glycoprotein DNA), not only could Glastonbury continue this year, but nearly everyone who attended had had or heard of at least one type of gene. therapy used today. Discussions varied freely; from the philosophy of altering genetics, tackling misinformation to understanding how to make a virus ‘safe’. Dealing with such an eager audience, many of whom were so passionate about supporting research into new treatments, felt incredibly rewarding and motivating. While we return to our research with a real perspective on its importance (and serious appreciation for showers), we’re optimistic that our visitors at Glastonbury returned to their tents with more than just a faded tattoo.
Dr. Rosie Munday is a postdoctoral researcher in the Gill and Hyde Gene Medicine group.