Letting the public loose in our labs

On Sunday 25th June 2017, University of Sussex hosted its first Community Festival. The local public were invited to explore the Falmer campus and get involved with a number of hands-on activities across the various schools and departments. There were taster activity sessions at the Sussex Sport facilities, nature walks around the campus, live jazz, talks and more. Thousands of people turned up for the day (1).


Sussex Drug Discovery Centre was represented on the programme by a delegation of our group – Trudy Myers (SDDC Co-ordinator), Jess Booth (Assay Development and Screening Biologist), Kay Osborn (Biology Technician), Lucas Kraft (PhD Student) and myself. Those who signed up to our activity were taken on a whistle-stop tour through the drug discovery process.

First of all, Jess gave an overview of what the drug discovery process entails (see Figure 1) and where the SDDC fits into that process.

Fiona 3.png

Figure 1 : the drug discovery process (2)

After this introduction, our guests donned lab coats and safety glasses and were given a tour of the group’s protein purification suite. Kay explained how the term “protein” is used in the context of drug discovery to describe tiny molecular machines in our bodies that carry out a variety of functions, and in some cases, cause disease symptoms. She showed the group some incubating flasks containing E. coli which is often used to produce a large quantity of these disease-causing protein. Then she explained how that protein can be later isolated from the bacteria cells via a technique called FPLC (fast protein liquid chromatography) (3) which separates proteins out by their different sizes.

Fiona 4

Next, the newly-briefed scientists were taken into the main biology lab where they were able to run their own biochemical assay. While some took to the pipettes quicker than others, all had fun pipetting reagents onto plates that had lots of different drug compounds in them to see if they got any hits – wells that turned pink indicated a successful compound that had bound to the protein and inhibiting its function while blue ones were unsuccessful ones.

Fiona 5

During the last part of our activity I showed our participants around the oncology chemistry lab. I pointed out many of the similar pieces of kit that they would find in their kitchen. We discussed how the results from the assay they had just run in the biology lab informs the work that is carried out by chemists and how we vary the procedures (or “recipes”) we use to make new drug compounds.

The feedback for the activity was overall very positive and our enthused guests went away knowing a lot more about the drug discovery process than when they arrived, which was our aim.

Fiona Scott is a first year PhD student at the SDDC.


  1. University welcomes local residents for fun-filled day of discovery. University of Sussex News. [Online] [Cited: 1st August 2017.] http://www.sussex.ac.uk/newsandevents/index?page=5&id=40722.
  2. NMT Pharmaceuticals. [Online] [Cited: 1st August 2017.] http://nmtpharma.com/en/drug-development-stages/.
  3. Dermot Walls, Sinéad T. Loughran. Protein Chromatography Methods and Protocols. New York : Humana press, 2011. pp. 439-447.


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