Hope beyond hype
Cathy Southworth explains why, when faced with the challenge of opening up stem cell science to the public, she turned to comic book artist Edward Ross and science fiction writer Ken Macleod. She is the Public Engagement Manager of OptiStem, an EU-funded stem cell research project based at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh.
When I was tasked last year with developing a resource to open up the world of stem cell science to the public, I must admit my heart groaned a little at the thought of another leaflet or information page that would be lost among the mass of information on the web. We needed something eye-catching and enticing; something that would stand out, all the while ensuring that the science was portrayed accurately.
There was obviously a story to tell; a very human story about how contemporary medical treatments are brought to the clinic. How do ideas develop? How do these ideas become possibilities? How do they get tested? How do we know they are as safe as they can be? How do we decide what ‘safe’ means and who decides? These were among the many questions I wanted to address, along with including an array of characters: scientists, clinicians, regulators, ethicists and patients, to name a few.
Contemplating how to tell this story came next. I’d read some picture books and medical comics for adults and liked the way that they portrayed sometimes complex information and issues in such a simple way. The format isn’t intimidating, and it can dissolve barriers between the ‘messages’ and the reader. I hoped that using this format would make the resource stand out on the web.
From these thoughts and ideas evolved Hope Beyond Hype,a graphic story written by well-known Scottish science fiction writer Ken Macleod, along with PhD student Jamie Hall, artist Edward Ross and me, and illustrated by Edward Ross.
The comic starts with the true story of two badly burned boys, treated with skin grafts generated from stem cells in 1983. It then goes on to talk about the successes and setbacks of a group of researchers working together to use stem cells to treat blindness, while introducing the reader to issues surrounding stem cell research, including regulation and ethical issues. Researchers from OptiStem provided the real-life examples of their research and experiences.
Ten days on from its launch, I’ve taken to ‘Googling’ for the comic on the web and have sailed into a world of tweeting, blogging, re-blogging etc… With nearly 100,000 views it’s been a lesson in the power of the internet and graphic stories. We hope it’s helping to communicate the process of translational medicine and has highlighted the reality and complexity of this type of science; giving hope, not hype.
Interactive and translated versions of Hope Beyond Hype will be available shortly. You can sign up to be notified when these versions are available.