Oct. 29, 2014

Student iGEM team heads to international competition in Boston

2014 project builds on success from United Nations presentation earlier this year

The University of Calgary iGEM team heads to Boston for the iGEM World Championship October 30-November 3. iGEM is the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, an annual undergraduate synthetic biology contest that sees students design different biological systems to run in living cells.

The team’s project is the B.s. detector, a diagnostic tool for infectious diseases that may be mistaken for malaria. Diseases such as typhoid fever, meningitis and pneumonia have similar clinical manifestations as malaria.

“These diseases are often misdiagnosed in resource-poor developing countries lacking suitable medical diagnostic facilities,” says Laura Fader, a second year chemical engineering student. “Failure to properly identify such diseases prevents medical professionals from administering appropriate treatments in a timely manner, which results in economic costs, drug resistance and human suffering.”

The detector is designed to identify the presence of several pathogens in a blood sample through the detection of specific sequences within genomic DNA. The modular platform is capable of tackling the issue of malaria misdiagnosis through engineering a synthetic biology based multi-diagnostic device that can detect the presence of multiple infectious diseases.

“Synthetic biology is a newly developing industry,” says Fader. “We are engineering Bacillus subtilis to generate chromophoric reporter proteins in response to pathogenic genetic markers and assist in identifying the presence of a particular disease.”

The 2014 iGEM team project addresses the malaria misdiagnosis issue but also has the potential for other uses. “The platform can be adapted, by changing the target DNA, we can test for the presence of other diseases.”

Presenting before a world audience

In August, four representatives from the University of Calgary iGEM team were invited to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Conventions in Geneva held by the United Nations. The team gave an oral and poster presentation at the Meeting of Experts before an international audience of 170 countries. 

“While in Geneva, our team pursued a meeting with FIND (Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics) headquarters for the opportunity to discuss the feasibility of implementation of our project, and the opinion and expertise of these institutions,” says Fader. “Our team has heavily been focusing on policy of developing countries regarding synthetic biology and diagnostic devices.

The presentation in Geneva has led to more interest from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian and American governments as well as the FBI, which are hoping to set up a presentation in November with representatives from the University of Calgary’s iGEM team.

Find out more at igem.ucalgary.ca and 2014.igem.org/Team:Calgary