Talking DNA and disease at the Royal Society

Sanger Institute researchers are sparking discussion on genomes and healthcare

The Sanger Institute is sending 50 of its researchers to this year’s Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition to take visitors on a journey through genetic discoveries and find out what they think should be done with their DNA data.

As DNA sequencing is slowly being introduced to hospitals and clinics, the team wants to find out what the public want to know about their DNA, and how they think doctors and researchers should handle DNA information. These opinions will be compared with transatlantic participants to assess the differences and similarities between attitudes to the use of DNA data.

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is an annual event that showcases the most exciting cutting-edge science and technology research. It provides a unique opportunity for members of the public to interact with scientists and ask them questions about their work.

“Cambridge has always been a focal point for genetics; uncovering the structure of DNA in the 1950s, the development of DNA sequencing techniques in the 1970s and the Human Genome Project here at the Sanger Institute in the 2000s. As the leading genomics institute in Europe, it’s our responsibility to spark discussion about the role genome sequencing should play in healthcare and society.

“The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is a fantastic opportunity to meet with the general public, understand people’s perceptions of DNA sequencing and capture their opinions.”

Dr Julia Willingale-Theune Manager of the Public Engagement team at the Sanger Institute

Sanger Institute research is going beyond scientific research and is beginning to improve healthcare. The UK10K is a project that aims to sequence the DNA of 10,000 people in the UK. Identifying rare, less commonly occurring genetic differences will improve our understanding of how diseases can develop, and ultimately lead to improvements in diagnoses and treatments. In another international project, Sanger Institute researchers are using DNA sequencing to understand how malaria becomes resistant to treatments. This information will help scientists to identify and eliminate resistant parasites before they spread further.

The Institute’s innovative exhibit at this year’s Summer Science Exhibition focuses on how genomics is moving beyond the laboratory and into healthcare. As the introduction of DNA sequencing into healthcare systems will greatly impact society, the Sanger Institute’s Public Engagement team wants to gather people’s opinions on the social and ethical implications of this technology.

The stand is split into three zones; the past, the present and the future. The first zone begins in the 1970s, goes through the history of DNA sequencing technologies and finishes with the Human Genome Project.

The second zone looks at where genomics is today. It focuses on current research being carried out by the Institute, such as uncovering the causes of rare and unknown developmental disorders, and using DNA sequencing to prevent outbreaks of hospital superbugs. In 2012, DNA sequencing from the Institute was used in Addenbrooke’s Hospital to track an outbreak of MRSA and help bring it to a close. This technology is now being implemented more widely within Addenbrooke’s to assess hospital outbreaks.

The third zone, at the heart of the exhibit, explores the social and ethical issues that surround the use of DNA information in society. In this zone, the visitors can answer a series of questions to capture opinions on DNA information and data.

“We have a team of explainers who are keen to engage with the public about their research, and the ethical and social issues around DNA sequencing. Our 20 years of experience, as well as a history of openness, puts us in a unique position to discuss these topical issues with everyone.”

Dr Steve Scott Content Producer for the Public Engagement team at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

The Sanger Institute’s project is running parallel to an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC. For the first time, the responses gathered from both events will be compared to see the difference in attitudes towards DNA sequencing between the UK and the US.

“This is just one of the remarkable and interesting projects that our Public Engagement team is involved with. It’s so important for our researchers to get out there and discuss with people what they do and the implications their research might have for society. The Public Engagement team is central to making this happen.”

Professor Sir Mike Stratton Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

More information

Please contact the Royal Society press office to register your interest in attending the press preview on 1 July.

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

General info:

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition showcases cutting edge research in science and engineering from across the UK. It is held annually at the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. Follow the Summer Science Exhibition on Twitter at using the hashtag #SSE2013 and Facebook at

The Exhibition is located in the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG and takes place from Tuesday 2 July to Sunday 7 July 2013.

Exhibition opening times:

Tue 2 July 10am – 9pm
Wed 3 July, 10am – 5pm
Thu 4 July 10am – 5pm
Fri 5 July 10am – 9pm
Sat 6 July 10am – 9pm
Sun 7 July 10am – 6pm

Note: Last entry is 30 minutes before closing time. The event is FREE and open to the public.
Further information can be found at:

Selected websites

  • The Royal Society

    The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine. The Society’s fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

    The Society’s strategic priorities emphasise its commitment to the highest quality science, to curiosity-driven research, and to the development and use of science for the benefit of society. These priorities are:

    • Promoting science and its benefits
    • Recognising excellence in science
    • Supporting outstanding science
    • Providing scientific advice for policy
    • Fostering international and global cooperation
    • Education and public engagement

    For further information on the Royal Society please visit Follow the Royal Society on Twitter at or on Facebook at

  • The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease.

  • The Wellcome Trust

    The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. We are independent of both political and commercial interests.