Science - October 11, 2012

Bio-builders go to Boston

Wageningen students are through to iGEM final. Team came up with ingenious plan for delivering medicine.

The iGem team includes both BSc and MSc students.
The iGem team includes both BSc and MSc students.

photo: .

A team of Wageningen students is through to the global final of the iGEM competition for biology builders.
The 15 students ended among the best 18 teams (out of 47) in the European preliminary round in Amsterdam on Sunday 7 October. Enough for a ticket to elite university MIT in Boston, where the final will be held at the start of November. Delft got through too, while Groningen was the European winner. The Wageningen team won the prize for the best presentation. This was the end of the line for the remaining Dutch teams.
'It is really great to get this recognition after a summer of slogging away,' says Jeroen Bosman, team member and Biotechnology student. 'I am over the moon. Actually, we were becoming more and more pessimistic towards the end. The jury didn't pay us that much attention, but it turns out that was because our presentation was so clear.'
The Wageningen iGEM team's submission was all about smarter delivery of medicines. Conventional medicines end up indiscriminately in both diseased and healthy parts of the body. The students thought up a mechanism for targeting the delivery of medicines. They spent the past few months in the lab simulating the protein casing for a virus. The students wanted to attach an adapter to the exterior. You can then click all the possible 'address labels' on this adapter. These ensure that the virus (with its load) is only taken up by the heart or liver cells, for instance. The clicking system means it can be used for any destination you want.
Eventually the approach could be used in developing vaccines and nano materials. 'The idea is really big enough for a five-year project,' says Bosman. 'They encourage you to come up with an ambitious plan at iGEM.'
The project did not go entirely smoothly. To the team's disappointment, the process of attaching the adapter went wrong just before the deadline. One genetic letter got left off in the instructions. An error with disastrous effects given that the letters are read in groups of three. The code shifted up one place, which changed everything into rubbish. 'Of course you get annoyed when that happens,' says Bosman. 'But you mustn't spend too long crying about it.'
There were enough strong points for them to get the Boston ticket, says Mark van Passel, assistant professor and their supervisor together with Floor Hugenholtz: 'I'm very proud of them.' Van Passel thinks the clicking system found favour because it enables standardization. 'They had also already published a paper, which is very unusual,' says Van Passel, 'and they had a particularly good presentation of their educational journey.' 
The international iGEM competition is all about synthetic biology. Students work with biological building blocks known as BioBricks. These can be combined to create synthetic life forms that carry out useful tasks. An unusual feature of iGEM is the 'open' philosophy. All the BioBricks are freely available and all the information can be found on Wiki pages. An iGEM team consists of students who are working on their Bachelor's or Master's thesis. They generally spend several months on the project, including the summer.
There was a modest celebration for Wageningen on Sunday evening with a meal and a few beers.
'I'll be back in lectures tomorrow morning,' commented Bosman, 'though perhaps a little the worse for wear and with my thoughts elsewhere.' They now have three weeks to work on a presentation and Wiki page, and then it's off to Boston.