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Superbugs vs Superheroes: Getting creative with antimicrobial resistance

by Guest Author on 10 May 2018

Last month, our researchers channelled their creativity into a one-off UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Superheroes vs Superbugs night at the Science Museum in London. Over 1,000 people came to meet some of the superheroes taking on the fight against the global threat of antimicrobial resistance. Petra Kiviniemi reports.

Antibiotics underpin nearly every aspect of modern medicine, but ever-increasing numbers of pathogens are becoming resistant to our arsenal of drugs. So now researchers are working harder than ever to discover new ways to prevent and treat drug-resistant infections.

Scientists transported guests into the hidden world of bacteria, using virtual reality to shrink them down to the size of bacterial proteins.

Scientists transported guests into the hidden world of bacteria, using virtual reality to shrink them down to the size of bacterial proteins.

The Science Museum currently plays host to Superbugs: The Fight for our lives. It’s an exhibition for anyone to visit and learn about the causes, consequences, and possible solutions for the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Engaging research

The free, adults-only event was part of the Museum’s April ‘Lates’ theme night and provided an ideal opportunity for researchers to showcase what they’re doing to fight AMR, why public funding is vital for the fight and how people can help.

But how do you attract someone’s attention when you’re up against the likes of a bar and the ‘best silent disco in town’? Our researchers rose to the challenge, running their own weird and wonderful AMR funfair complete with a barbershop quartet, edible agar and a virtual reality headset.

Barbershop-O-Gram performed an antimicrobial acapella song penned specially for the occasion.

Roll up, roll up, and have a go!

The AMR Arcade worked a treat, with lots of people lining up to try their luck. Each part of the multi-sensory arcade explored a different element of drug resistance. Players pushed buttons at lighting speed to administer the right treatment at the right time. And the ‘Your skin is your shield’ game showed players how their skin can protect them surprisingly well from superbugs, but only if they adhere to good hygiene practices.

Swab and Send

Agar plates with grisly bacterial colonies helped entice curious onlookers to ‘Swab and Send’ – a stall about one of the UK’s largest citizen science projects. Many of the antibiotics we use today are produced by bacteria and fungi, which can be found anywhere and everywhere.

Superbugs, Science Museum late

Visitors dug deep in the hunt for new antibiotics, uncovering the importance of soils in the quest for new antibiotics.

In their hunt to find new antibiotics, the Swab and Send team invited guests to swab an area of the museum where they thought microbes could be hiding. The team had over 117 swabs returned on the night for analysis, and expect to receive another 200 in the post over the next few weeks.

Speakers enthralled guests with stories of survival, rebellion, hope and nightmares throughout the night, with readings of the Longitude Prize’s science fiction short-stories ‘Infectious Futures’.

Speakers enthralled guests with stories of survival, rebellion, hope and nightmares throughout the night, with readings of the Longitude Prize’s science fiction short stories ‘Infectious Futures’.

Designing diagnostics

Researchers challenged visitors to get stuck in and help build prototypes of new diagnostic tests for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the form of the mini Longitude Prize – with an added art-and-craft twist.

Expanding beyond the allocated tables, people eagerly gathered into teams on the carpeted floors to construct their devices, with flickering LEDs to signal the detection of superbug infections.

Decoys, distraction and resistance

Visitors dodged bubbles emerging from a playful-looking papier-mâché pathogen, mimicking how resistant bacteria use decoys as a tactic to evade antibiotics. Dr Andrew Edwards from Imperial College London, who led the project, explained how talking to members of the public about their research can help to inform their choice of activities in future:

“By gauging how much the public know, we can tailor our message better in the future – we can really get across the key messages in way that the public will find interesting and go on and learn from and employ in everyday life.”

The exhibition is open daily until spring 2019, with late opening (18.45 to 22.00) on the last Wednesday of each month for Lates. The exhibition is supported by Pfizer, Shionogi, UK Research and Innovation and the University of East Anglia.

The AMR Arcade was developed by the Winchester Science Centre, with the University of Southampton’s Network for Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Prevention (NAMRIP), and support from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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