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Citizen Science can Support Antibiotic Research and Education | Royal College of Art

Innovation Design Engineering graduate Vidhi Mehta's Post/Biotics is a citizens science platform and toolkit providing the equipment, knowledge and science network people need to support researchers and pharmaceutical antibiotic development. She received a special mention in this year's SustainRCA Awards. Here, she discusses the problems facing antibiotics and how she plans to develop Post/Biotics:

Radio, television shows, trips to the Science museum and conversations with GPs are a few of the sources that showed me how the problem of antibiotic resistance is becoming a glaring crisis. I identified a number of issues. There is a lack of awareness on correct use of the 'wonder drug': nine out of ten times we do not need an antibiotic to treat our cough or cold. When prescribed with an antibiotic dosage it is critically important to complete it. Bacteria are ingenious in evolving and becoming resistant to drugs that prior killed them. If we dont complete a dose and few bacteria survive, not just the ill person but entire community is now susceptible to this evolved species of bacteria: super mutant bacteria.

Pharmaceutical companies are losing monetary interests. Simply put, profit margins in researching and producing a medicine that will become useless as often as it is used are low. Also antibiotics are tricky to discover. An antibiotic works because it has antimicrobial properties, something that can kill, stop or protect bacteria from multiplying. Most antimicrobials we know of are derived from nature trees, soil, fungus, volcanoes, deep sea beds, herbs, or even insects. So, a potential new antibiotic could be anywhere. This makes research far more difficult for scientists as it is time and resource intensive.

In design, I was taught problems like drug resistance are wicked problems: a problem of systemic magnitude with multiple stakeholders and no silver bullet. Such problems require many different types of intervention, each driving the cause in positive direction. I decided to approach the problem from my cultural roots.

Growing up in India, home remedies, ayurveda (vedic plant based medicines) has been a practice quite common to me. Garlic, honey and turmeric are often used as antimicrobials. I wondered how many more local medicines and practices people across the world use and what this knowledge mean to scientific researchers looking for a lead in discovering new antibiotics. I also wondered if there is a way of proving antimicrobial attributes of our local medicines.This is when I interacted with Josiah Zayner, a bio-physicist working on ILIAD (International laboratory for identification of antibiotic drugs). We spoke about crowdsourcing antimicrobials by providing people with tools and platform to assist. Post/Biotics was born.

Alexander Fleming found penicillin (first antibiotic) when he accidentally grew some fungus on a plate with ecoli bacteria. We developed a simple toolkit that facilitates people to do this. The kit allows people to test soil, plants or fungus growing in their surrounding for antimicrobial values by putting them on a plate of ecoli and observing a colour change if the sample is antimicrobial.

Awareness of the issue of drug resistance is part of the problem. Schools are the perfect medium to raise awareness. Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education, aglobal network,is on the rise. We designed the toolkit to fit into Science curriculum of 12-14 year olds. I collaborated with The Cedars School in London (UK) and Navrachana School in Vadodara (India) to test the platform and concept. It was a huge hit and interactions with the schools have helped to shape the platform and toolkit to its current version.

When people participating in Post/Biotics discover an interesting sample the platform recognises its uniqueness and sends it over for verification to university leaders. Post/Biotics partnered with research facilities at Imperial College and University of Chicago (through Josiah) to make this possible.Currently, I am working on development of the Post/Biotics app. (Google PlayStore: Post/Biotics) The web database will help people enter in their records, test samples, verify their samples with other members using Post/Biotics and create new opportunities for partnerships between scientists and people. Post/Biotics thrives on the vision of what happens when scientific tools are available to everybody, and asks does that change how discoveries are made?

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