A synthetic vaccine for Helicobacter pylori designed by a team of undergraduate linkurl:students from Slovenia;http://2008.igem.org/Team:Slovenia took the grand prize this weekend at iGEM, the student synthetic biology competition organized by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We wanted to make something with medical potential in the very near future," the team said in a presentation of their work yesterday (November 9). iGEM, the International Genetically Modified Ma
Nov 10, 2008
A synthetic vaccine for Helicobacter pylori designed by a team of undergraduate linkurl:students from Slovenia;http://2008.igem.org/Team:Slovenia took the grand prize this weekend at iGEM, the student synthetic biology competition organized by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We wanted to make something with medical potential in the very near future," the team said in a presentation of their work yesterday (November 9). iGEM, the International Genetically Modified Machines competition, was launched five years ago. The idea was to set undergraduates (and in some cases, high school students) to work on answering a question: Can simple biological systems be built from a specific set of biological parts and operate in living cells, or is biology just too complex to be synthesized? Judging by the fruits of the labors of the 84 teams competing this year, with participants from as far afield as Warsaw, Mexico and Taiwan, the answer is yes, at least in principle. At the beginning of the summer, students receive a collection of biological "parts" -- pre-made bits of DNA that can be assembled together as students see fit -- from the linkurl:BioBricks Foundation's;http://bbf.openwetware.org/ Registry of Standard Biological linkurl:Parts,;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/53835/ an organization established by linkurl:Tom Knight;http://knight.openwetware.org/ and linkurl:Randy Rettberg;http://2008.igem.org/Team:Slovenia at MIT and linkurl:Drew Endy,;http://openwetware.org/wiki/Endy_Lab now at Stanford University. They have three months to design and complete their projects. This year's projects ranged from the playful -- engineering E. coli to tell time or to "sing" (or rather, to produce specific output that are translated into sounds by a computer) -- to more immediately useful (a bacterial battery, for example, engineered to output electrical charge, or a sensor for heavy metals). The seven-member Slovenian team, which conducted its experiments under the mentorship of researchers at the National Institute of Chemistry in Ljubljana, chose to work on H. pylori because of its prevalence. The bacterium infects almost half the world's population, in particular people in the developing world, and causes ulcers and gastrointestinal cancer. The bacteria are also particularly wily in evading immune system detection. H. pylori's invisibility to the immune system primarily comes from the protein flagellin. So the group decided to create a chimeric version of the protein that will also include elements recognizable to the human immune system, thereby triggering the immune system to produce antibodies. In culture, this approach activated immune system cells. The group also began in vivo experiments in mice -- though the experiments are extremely preliminary, the students did see antibodies to H. pylori, suggesting that using their synthesized constructs as vaccines for the bacterium showed promise. The contest is judged by a team consisting mostly of scientists, who spent Saturday running from presentation to presentation, assessing everything from how well the project was conceived and executed, to whether the teams created additional "parts" which could be used by other teams in the future. Awards went to teams in numerous categories, from the topic they addressed (eg medical or manufacturing) to best poster or presentation. The prize: A Lego-shaped "BioBrick," about the size of a large foot, complete with its own briefcase, and engraved with winners from previous years. Slovenia's team also took home the brick in 2006. Many of the projects, while highly innovative, probably won't continue beyond the competition -- in part because the funding to seriously pursue them isn't available, said Herbert Sauro, a biochemist conducting research related to the synthetic biology who mentored a team from the University of Washington. The Slovenian team, though, insists that for them that's not the case. "Actually, [the H. pylori vaccine] looks quite promising," Katja Kolar, one of the team members, told The Scientist. "We want to take it all the way to the end."Editor's note (posted November 10): This blog has been updated from a previous version, and has corrected misspellings of Helicobacter pylori and BioBrick. The Scientist regrets the error.