SXSW 2014 Session Preview: The BioCurious Become Citizen Scientists

Written by Kelly Krause | November 19, 2013

Citizen science is a big point of focus at SXSW Interactive 2014

The emerging practices of citizen science and biohacking have piqued curiosities across the board. More and more lay people have become attracted to this movement -- from a fashion-forward individual as myself, to 16-year-old high school student Jack Andraka (who is scheduled to speak at SXSWedu 2014). Sessions covering citizen science and bio-hacking at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival include:

  • Anne Wojcicki Keynote: Wojcicki co-founded 23andMe, the leading health and ancestry DNA service that allows consumers to access to their own genetic information via a $99 at-home kit. In the last five years, the Silicon Valley startup has mapped the genotype of 475,000 people with the hope to hit over a million in 2014. I am excited about the possibility of controlling and potentially preventing a medical condition outside of my doctor's office. 23andMe will make an appearance in my familys' stockings this Christmas. Wojcicki will deliver keynote remarks on Sunday, March 9 at 2:00 pm in Exhibit Hall 5 of the Austin Convention Center.

  • Inventing Tumor Paint: Tapping into Nature's DNA. Did you know that scorpions, specifically Israeli Deathstalker scorpions, produce a venom that allow surgeons to target brain tumors more effectively? I didn't either until I met Dr. Jim Olson last month. Over lunch, the very passionate pediatric neuro-oncologist told me about his career treating children with brain cancer and the research he's conducting to move closer to proper removal of this cancer. Brain surgery is difficult because, while it sounds easy, removing only the bad tissue and leaving the good isn't easily identifiable. With the help of the scorpion venom, Jim & his colleague created Tumor Paint -- designed to illuminate cancer cells int the body, distinguishing the good tissue from the bad tissue. As detailed in this CNN piece, during patient research, they found that Tumor Paint was 500 times more sensitive than an MRI, and it didn't just work for brain cancer but breast, skin, prostate and colon cancers. In 2010, Olson founded Blaze Bioscience to run human clinical trials and bring Tumor Paint to the masses. After working on canine tumors, the company will conduct their first human trial in Australia next month. And scorpions were just the beginning. Olson also started Project Violet, which will use crowdsourcing to fund its research. Citizens can adopt drug candidates for $100 and name them as they go through the discovery process. Each candidate is a variation of a protein made from a plant or animal. I have never met anyone more passionate about making advancements in their industry and can tell you that this session may change your life and the way you view science.

  • The Future of Citizen Science. I've never thought about my microbiome (the 100 trillion microorganism that live in our gut, mouth or skin) until I read about Jessica Richmond and her company, uBiome. uBiome is a citizen science startup that sequences the human microbiome. They are the largest successful citizen science crowdfunding campaign in history (over $350,000). Dozens of health conditions are correlated with the microbiome -- from asthma to diabetes, autism to depression, and more. uBiome allows consumers to purchase an at-home kit for $89 to help investigate their personal microbiome and learn how they correlate with others. Their theory is that everyone can be a scientist and they aim to revolutionize science with this belief.

The science of tomorrow presents many new possibilities — and many new challenges. Will empowering citizens with more tools to collect data result in new breakthroughs? Will new technologies allow us to discover better solutions to age-old problems? These are questions I hope that speakers address at SXSW Interactive next spring in Austin. Make sure to check out more science and health-related content, plus our entire lineup of 2014 sessions here.

To attend these SXSW Interactive sessions, purchase an Interactive, Gold or Platinum badge. Save big if you purchase your badge before prices increase at 11:59 pm CST this Friday, November 22, 2013.