Before beginning our experiments, we were trained by our instructors, on how to use the laboratory equipment, emphasizing on safe use of equipment that could potentially prove dangerous, like the autoclave or UV lamps and laboratory techniques that require the use of toxic chemicals, like ethidium bromide in agarose gel electrophoresis. Also, we were are aware of the guidelines we have to follow in case of emergency, like someone being wounded by broken glass, getting in contact with a toxic chemical agent and also in cases of a fire or gas leakage.
General Lab safety rules
The Molecular Virology Laboratory at the Hellenic Pasteur Institute follows the HMIS (Hazardous Materials Identification System) to classify risks. According to the category of each material, the HMIS also uses a letter coding to suggest required equipment for personal protection during handling. For example, a material labeled with the letter “C” requires safety glasses, gloves and protective apron. You can view the general rules of the Lab here.
We always wear lab coats and gloves when working in the lab and goggles when needed. We also always keep the one glove rule when temporarily leaving the lab and never wear our lab coats outside of it.
Measures against contamination
We make sure to disinfect the vessels that contained biological materials and microorganisms, using an autoclave, so that we can safely reuse them and not spread anything potentially dangerous to the environment. Also, anything disposable is thrashed away in the suitable waste bin. Finally, our wet lab and dry lab are separate from each other, so there is no risk of contaminating the dry desk space.
Our goal was to design a cell-free diagnostic system to detect MERS-CoV in infected individuals. Our kit is cell free, so is does not involve potentially harmful biological parts and also does not contain any antibiotic resistance genes. The toehold switches were created with risk group one microorganisms and although MERS-CoV in itself belongs to group three, we made sure to use synthetic, non-coding and thus non-toxic parts of its genome as triggers.
Safety in our Product Design
Safety was a key factor that affected the diagnostic kit design. As a product addressed to potential MERS-CoV patients, a faulty design could significantly affect global health. In our effort to eliminate any risk sources, we proposed the following:
The part of the kit that comes in contact with the patients sample will be disposable in a sealed “biohazard” bag. In parallel, taking into consideration the environmental impact, we suggested that the rest of the kit will be reusable and recyclable.
The kit should be sanitized after each use so as to avoid carryover transmission.
The kit contains a positive control test. Running a control in parallel to our detection assay would be an indicator of the result’s validity and of a potential false negative.
In addition, we have yet to determine our mechanism’s sensitivity, as this affects directly the reliability of the kit.
Last but not least, the diagnostic kit does not guarantee the patient’s next steps. Unfortunately, we cannot ensure that patients that are tested in emergency testing facilities, such as in airports, will seek medical attention after their positive diagnosis but we strongly encourage the personnel to facilitate the contact between patients and doctors.
Safety in our Public Engagement Actions
In the context of Public Engagement actions we visited three high-schools and tried to introduce an audience of 10th and 11th graders to Synthetic Biology. Our presentation, “Synthetic Biology: Engineering Life”, span from an analogy between living cells and machines, to biotechnology and the principles of synthetic biology and, finally, to our own iGEM project. During this presentation we underlined the primary role of Safety and Security while working on Synthetic Biology challenges. We also handed out questionnaires with pre- and post-presentation sections, and discussed with the students on their comments on Biosafety issues.
We noticed that the students seemed to grasp the importance of taking into account potential negative implications and take appropriate measures to avoid or tackle them. Some of the children’s concerns were: