Biochemical engineer Mike Hughson of UCL joined us (with fellow engineers Chris Grant and Matthew Shiers) at the Secret Garden Party and Bestival this summer with an outlandish event: The Vaccine Assault Course. 

“Telling people what I do can be somewhat challenging, as their eyes often glaze over at the mention of ‘biochemical engineering’. So we thought we would try a different tact: have people act out the steps in the engineering process, and pretend to become the drug themselves.” He tells us more about the genesis of this very unusual spectacle.

“Your balls are very important,” I said to the guy dressed solely in fiery red lingerie and fox ears. “Try and make sure you don’t lose them.”

In his eyes I saw a hunger for fame and glory that could only come from a semi-naked man on the Isle of Wight clad in lace suspenders, matching bra and spurred on by his huntsman comrades and the gathering crowd. Although probably the least foxy fox the world has ever seen, he was determined to dominate this assault course and become the most morally dubious vaccine the world has ever seen; this was Bestivaland anything was possible.

As soon as I started the timer and shouted the hallowed word ‘GO!’, this cross-dressed gladiator of the festival world shot out of the tent head first into our Vaccine Assault Course  like a grand national champion.

First, careful not to sink into a pool of corn starch, our intrepid fox elegantly donned a coat, hat and rucksack, each coated in brightly coloured balls.

The sultry hero then jumped through filters of pink fabric and crawled underneath netting. Having only lost a couple of balls along the way, he was safely vacuum-sealed into a plastic bag and was finally able to go out into the world and vaccinate, fresh as a hairy Ann Summers-esque daisy.

This strange spectacle, our Vaccine Assault Course, was first held at Secret Garden Party near Cambridge in July and then at Bestival on the Isle of Wight in September. The course is a metaphor for a vaccine manufacturing process, and is designed to help explain what biochemical engineering is to the average person. As an engineering doctorate student at UCL specialising in vaccine manufacture, telling people what I do can be somewhat challenging, as their eyes often glaze over at the mention of “biochemical engineering”. So we thought we would try a different tact: have people act out the steps in the engineering process, and pretend to become the drug themselves.

The oft-heard tagline for my field is ‘Turning good biology into practical solutions’. This not only includes some of the latest drugs, vaccines and therapies but also alcoholic drinks and biofuels – getting a product out of a biological system. It is one thing to find a potentially lifesaving anti-cancer drug in the lab and watch it kill off a few cancer cells in a dish; but it is a wholly different operation to get that drug into mass production to treat millions of people across the globe. So as well as about $1billion and 10 years, you’ll need quite a few biochemical engineers to design the production processes from lab-scale right through to full industrial scale.

The assault course represents some of the operations and challenges faced by us, the unsung heroes of modern medicine if you will. Most processes start by having the product – the vaccine – made within a living biological organism such as bacteria, fungi, yeast or mammalian cells. This is the first part of our course, where contestants put on an outfit to represent the creation of the vaccine drug, covered in balls which symbolise the antigens. Antigens are the molecules that the immune system recognises as part of foreign invader – such as the chemicals on the surface of a virus – and are crucial for an effective vaccine.

Vaccines work by presenting antigens to your immune system so it can develop specific antibodies that respond to those antigens, and thus recognise them in the future and protect you at a later date (in the same way that if you get a cold virus, you will become immune to that specific one, and won’t get that cold again).

During manufacture the vaccine product must be kept intact, avoiding damage otherwise you end up with something useless. So for the coloured antigens covering the surface of our vaccines, we want these to remain there during processing otherwise we are left with a less effective vaccine. Hence we stuck coloured “antigens” on our outfits with velcro and gave the sage advice to always look after your balls.

The cornstarch highlights how the fluid in which the organism is growing doesn’t always behave as you would expected. This needs to be considered by the engineers as these organisms grow rapidly as more air and nutrients are mixed in.

Plus, cornstarch is wicked fun to play with.

Everything that follows the production of the vaccine basically involves purifying the product, removing all the other crap which comes with any such biological mix, such as waste from the bacteria used to make the vaccine in the first place.

Filtration separates components by size, which we represented with massive pink sheets of fabric perforated with holes just large enough for people to squeeze through.

The next step, chromatography, is a technique which separates the ingredients of a mixture based on the chemicals on their surface. In the case of our course, we represented chromatography with a sheet of netting, which delayed many an inebriated participant from becoming a vaccine.

The final challenge on our course was to step inside a giant plastic bag, fully kitted up with remaining antigens, and have the air sucked out – to be vacuumed packed, just as pills are into blister packs.

Packaging is crucial to all drug and vaccine manufacturing processes, as the product must safely arrive intact to the point of care. This is even more important for vaccines heading to developing nations where poor infrastructure become serious obstacles to delivering a safe and effective treatment.

Across the two festivals we had almost 30 brave volunteers sacrifice their dignity, to varying degrees (the fox certainly went all-out in this respect), in order to make the world a healthier place and educate people as to some of the challenges faced by us valiant biochemical engineers.

Sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering.