Bermuda’s Youth Parliament debate team will take centre stage; before scientists and researchers from around the world, who are here for the second edition of a conference exploring genetic research.

The event was officially opened last evening by Premier David Burt, where participants will examine and discuss ‘Bermuda Principles: Impact on Splicing’, at the Fairmont Southampton Resort.

The conference, which runs through to Saturday, has 50 registered delegates, along with “an impressive roster of 36 speakers and panelists from 11 countries, including Australia, Denmark, Switzerland and South Africa.

“Among the attendees are prominent geneticists, scientists, professors, researchers, PhD students, working in international labs, biotech representatives and investors,” a spokesperson said.

The Bermuda Youth Parliament debate on the use of HeLa cells derived from a cancer patient, will be live-streamed on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The debate will be opened by Dr Daniel Ford, Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Bermuda’s MPs have been invited to attend and the winning students will receive smart phones courtesy of Digicel.

Elated to “see the growth of the conference since last year’s event”, Bermudian Dr Carika Weldon, a biomedical researcher with her own lab at De Montfort University, said her “main aim has been to promote the Bermuda Principles document that was created at a conference that took place here back in 1996”.

Dr Weldon, who conceived the event and launched it last February, added: “It’s awesome to realise that thanks to the work we’ve done, more Bermudians, including our MPs, know about this now.

“It’s an important legacy, and we should all be proud of the role Bermuda has played in genetics history.”

US and UK scientists met in Bermuda in 1996, in what was described as a “scientific milestone”, to “negotiate the completion of the Human Genome Project”.

In a landmark agreement – ‘The Bermuda Principles’, they decided “gene sequences developed by numerous private labs would be made publicly available worldwide to advance scientific research”.

The paper “contributed to the pace and reach of scientific research that followed”.

This year’s conference “pays tribute to that history, while forging forward with a contemporary agenda of sessions”.

Proceeds from the Youth Parliament debate will finance a trip to South Africa by local high school students later this year, at a cost of $3,000 per student.

The invitation was extended beyond the 20 Youth Parliament members, to include all high school students who may wish to go in July 2018.

“We are hoping to raise enough to cover initial deposits and have some to go towards the first installment,” said Dr Weldon.

Asked what she hoped the students will gain from this experience, she said: “We hope the students will gain an international, cultural experience by going to South Africa on a research trip, but also that they will see the reward in giving back to the field of science by teaching the next generation.

“They will also strengthen their own confidence in science.”

She also encouraged residents to make an investment in our youth “to bring great returns”.

“I was invested through scholarships. Someone saw that I was worthy of being given a chance,” she said.

“To support this development trip for our students will not only make them better students, better citiizens, but also make them competitive when it comes to applying for university and scholarships.”

On Friday, local high-schoolers will carry out a genetic-engineering experiment using kits provided by Amino Labs, in which colourful jellyfish DNA will be added to bacteria.

Saturday afternoon will see science teachers join doctors and other professionals for a panel discussion on integrating research into healthcare and education curricula.

One of the conference highlights will focus on how to commercialise scientific ideas, leveraging investment to turn them into viable businesses.

“As a researcher at a university, I had to quickly realise that what I was doing today could become a business venture tomorrow,” said Dr Weldon, who is also creating a foundation to promote science in the Bermuda community. 

“I have had to get my own head around commercialisation. In academia, we’re taught to do experiments and publish, but sometimes that prevents you from turning an idea into a profitable venture.”

Bermuda Business Development Agency (BDA) consultant for Emerging Technologies, John Narraway and others will also discuss Bermuda’s attraction to biotech investors as a blue-chip international finance centre.

“Bermuda has long been the domicile for many established and well-known biotech companies,” he said.

“We see a conference like this as an opportunity to build a new ecosystem for early-stage biotech and life-science ventures. 

“The BDA is participating in the event as a way to connect with these researchers and show the value the island can bring to those looking to transform their research into a commercial opportunity and licensable product.”

The students travelling to South Africa “will also be engaging in authentic research, learning the whole process from experimental design to data collection to interpretation of data and analysis”.

The research will focus on the genetics of taste and probe whether or not there could be a link that contributes to the rate of diabetes in Bermuda.

Dr Weldon said: “This is very relevant with the imminent sugar tax soon to be debated in the House of Assembly.

“They will also collect data from their trip in Durban to compare the two regions. We hope to generate an authentic research paper that we aim to publish in an international peer-reviewed science journal.”