Festival goers got more than they bargained for when they took a stroll down the new Green Futures science area at Glastonbury this year. Even arriving on site we caused confusion - “The gene therapists? You want to be in Healing Fields, don’t you?”. Undeterred we pitched up opposite the Astrologers with bated breath, and this was before the public toilets were even open. We were about to become part of one of the most unique festivals on the planet, determined to share our passion for the future (and current) use of gene therapy to treat disease.
To spread enthusiasm across the festival (or go viral as it were) we offered visitors the opportunity to fashion one of six different temporary tattoos; each representing an example of a gene therapy currently in the clinic or being developed. Embedded within each viral vector design was a unique QR code – scan to reveal the identity of the gene and disease that specific vector aims to treat and how!
While we thought we had nailed how to engage the sceptics, and simultaneously console those that thought they might actually be getting a walk-in gene therapy service from a field (!), the reality behind the floods of interest was overwhelming; almost every visitor was aware or directly/indirectly affected by a condition at stake. The concept of gene therapy as a medical treatment option, something many had heard of but did not know was in practice, often seemed almost as unbelievable as Paul McCartney’s duet with Bruce Springsteen.
We successfully ‘transduced’ over 1000 volunteers, and although this might be ‘small fry’ at such a huge festival, I was personally buzzing when BBC cameras panned into the crowds during the Sam Fender set to see AAV and lentiviral vector tattoos adorning shoulders and arms raised to the sky. I was only little disappointed we hadn’t managed to tempt Sam to stop by himself.
If someone had told me a couple of years ago that I would be attending Glastonbury and successfully encouraging members of the public to have a virus temporarily tattooed on their arm I might have had my doubts. Yet, largely thanks to one of these viral vectors (ChadOx1 delivering SARS-CoV-2 spike glycoprotein DNA), not only could Glastonbury go ahead this year, but almost everyone attending had either had, or heard of, at least one type of gene therapy in use today. Discussions ranged freely; from the philosophy of changing genetics, tackling misinformation to understanding how a virus can be made ‘safe’. Engaging with such an eager audience, many of whom were so passionate to support research for 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 are optimistic that our visitors at Glastonbury returned to their tents with more than just a faded tattoo.
Dr Rosie Munday is a post-doctoral research scientist in the Gill and Hyde Gene Medicine group.