Labs open doors to open minds
Genetics is deeply distrusted by some and the ultimate solution to all our health problems for others, highlighting the gulf between researchers and the public.
To help overcome some of the misconceptions surrounding the science of genes, laboratories all over Switzerland are throwing open their doors until early July.
Some 70 events will take place at the 17 labs and institutions participating in the tenth Swiss Gene Days, with visitors experimenting alongside scientists and finding out just what constitutes genetic research.
And what they will discover is that it's not hot pink grass, six-legged pigs or cloned humans that are being developed. It's to overcome this kind of perception that these events have been organised for the past decade.
The Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne is just one of many institutions putting resources into genetics. Reason enough to explain just what kind of research is being done.
"When you meet visitors during the gene days, you can feel their interest," the institute's Dietrich Reinhard told swissinfo. "Of course they are the people who have made an effort to come. For the others who don't, it's hard to know what they think."
Reinhard says he hopes that people are slowly getting a grasp on all the issues surrounding genetics. But it's unclear if the message has got through.
At another institution in Lausanne, the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research, it is the central role played by genes in the development of the multiple forms of the disease that will be presented to visitors.
Heredity, which stems from our parents' genetics, is not the only cause of cancer. Other factors such as smoking, obesity or exposure to environmental hazards can also play a role.
But what these external factors do is cause a genetic disturbance, disrupting the life cycle of our cells and setting loose an all too often fatal illness.
This is what researchers at the Lausanne institute are trying to understand: how a cancerous growth is triggered and what has changed inside the cellular mechanism.
During the gene days, visitors to the institute's laboratories will meet scientists conducting fundamental research focusing on cancer pathways and others looking at new clinical approaches and treatments.
New medications might act directly on genes, but also on the so-called cellular signalling pathways. Cells signal to each other to switch on and off their various functions.
Communication is complicated, and the signalling network itself is complex. The slightest hiccup, including a genetic mutation, can lead to a tumour.
The most recent pharmaceuticals can target the network, but before this can happen, scientists have to understand what has gone haywire. And more often than not, it all boils down to a gene malfunction.
The first results have been spectacular in some cases. Novartis' Glivec, a treatment used against certain types of leukaemia, is a case in point.
But for Michel Aguet, head of the cancer institute, this success was reached against a form of the disease that is, genetically speaking, "very simple to understand".
This means that most forms of cancer are far from being beaten and that research has plenty to keep it busy for the years to come. But to keep the funding flowing, scientists have to convince the public their research is really worth it.
And if the public doesn't want to enter the laboratories where the real work is being done, the researchers won't be sitting around waiting for visitors to turn up.
In Lausanne for example, the various partners involved in genetics, such as the cancer institute and the university hospital, are setting up their stall in the heart of city.
There, people will be able to look at their own cells and even take home a sample of their own DNA – a simple way of showing that genetics concerns everyone.
swissinfo, based on an article in French by Marc-André Miserez
On June 7 1998, more than two-thirds of Swiss voters turned down a proposal to ban genetically modified plants and animals.
Genetic researchers had been worried that a ban would have a disastrous effect on their work. During the campaign against the proposal, scientists came out of the woodwork to defend their research and their jobs.
But rather than withdraw to their labs after winning popular approval, the Swiss genetics community decided to pursue its public relations effort, developing the first Swiss Gene Days.
The tenth event, entitled "Experience research", runs from April 21 to July 5 in 15 towns and cities all over the country.
Activities such as laboratory visits, exhibitions and conferences are free of charge to the public, although registration is required for some activities.
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