Drug discovery- a child’s play

Last Sunday I took my, almost 10 year old, daughter to our  first ever visit to the Brighton Science Festival.

The decision to go came after finding out that PhD students from the Sussex Drug Discovery Centre (SDDC), where having a workshop aiming to introduce children from 7 to 14 to the concept of drug discovery.

We arrive at Hove Park School, a secondary school in Hove where the event was taking place, around lunch time. We were hoping that arriving in the middle of meal time, the place would be less crowded, but we found out that families were still eager to visit the exhibitions with empty stomachs. As  soon as we arrived we headed to the class room where the SDDC where having their display, but we did not even attempt to wait in the queue. It seemed that our PhD students were attracting lots of attention, and later found out that the Saturday queues were even longer. So we went around the school and visited other stands. Navigating around the school was not easy, lots of confusing corridors, staircases and rooms with little or poor indication. On our third attempt to get into the room where the Drug Discovery  demonstration was taking place, we decided to wait in the 15min queue. Once in the queue kids received a lab coat, a pair of goggles a pen and a little notebook. Kids were getting excited even before starting their tour around the room.

Fifteen minutes later the group moved into the first stall where the children were received by James; James is a PhD student in Biochemistry and despite on his second day at the fair, and having countlessly repeated the same words James was enthusiastically talking about proteins. He had prepared an experiment to show how proteins work by demonstrating how a piece of liver (full of proteins) would destroy a H2O2 (a “nasty chemical” according to what kids would remember after the show)… and with a bit of liquid soap in the mixture the kids were screaming of excitement watching a big lump of foam expanding in a measuring cylinder.

Next was Katie’s turn to helps kids design a new drug!! Katie is doing her PhD in Chemical Biology also at the SDDC. The group of kids were given a chemistry model kit and a piece of paper, representing a bacteria’s protein, with a big white section, representing the pocket where the ligand binds. The children were given total freedom to attempt to create a molecule that could fit in the white pocket. Some of the designs were quite imaginative; while most of the kids tried to fit the pocket with a flat molecule, some other very creative kids went beyond that and build a 3D structure…we might see them working at the SDDC in the future!!  Once the kids had finished designing their drugs, they had to test whether their models would fit into the bacteria’s protein pocket made of papier mâché, and also check that it would not fit into a similar protein found in humans. What a clever way of explaining to kids what side effects of drugs are.


Tom and Hayley, both Chemistry PhD students at the University of Sussex, had the kids doing a real chemistry experiment!! Wasn’t that fun!! The intention of the demonstration was not to know which chemicals were being mixed and which reaction was taking place, but that by adding one chemical to the another a chemical reaction could occur. The PhD students had carefully planned the reaction by choosing one that would form a yellow precipitate when adding one colourless solution to another colourless one, resulting in even more screams of excitement when the yellow powder appeared inthe kids’ Erlenmeyer flasks. It was then demonstrated the purification method of re-crystallisation, which was performed by the demonstrators as it involved heating up the reaction flasks. Nevertheless, the children were carefully following up the discussion on how a chemical dissolves at high temperatures and precipitates again when cooled down.

Last but not least, Lucas, also a Biologist PhD student at the SDDC, went on to explain about biochemical assays. In kids’ words, if the drug they had made was good or not. This was again a hands on experiment where they added a solution of the drug into a solution of the protein, followed by the addition of the “detection reagent”. If the solution turned pink, Eureka!! the drug was doing its job.
Overall, the kids had a great time at the SDDC workshop, they had a chance to do some real experiments and they were even dressed up as proper scientists!! A success!!

I am sure next year the SDDC PhD students will be asked to repeat the job, however, I am also sure those involved will ask for a few more pair of hands. It was full-time non-stop two day job with no time for breaks in order to satisfy the eager of the little ones to discover the world of “Making Marvellous Medicines”.

Blog written by Carol Villalonga-Barber



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