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NerveCenter MIT competition a catalyst for student innovation.

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Cell Research Center, Director Johnny Huard,
PhD, says adult, or post-natal, stem cells appear to be more practical and perhaps as effective as embryonic cells in treating degenerative
neuromuscular disorders like Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).
He tells NerveCenter that his research using
adult cells in indicates that the pluripotency of
embryonic cells might not be as necessary as
once thought for these and other medical disorders involving musculoskeletal conditions.
With muscular dystrophy, most patients
have sufficient numbers of stem cells to repair
muscle for the first 2 or 3 years, but the “pool”
of such cells gradually runs dry and cannot
keep pace with the disease’s progression, he
says. Injecting patients with their own stem
cells, grown in quantities in the lab, might
help prevent muscle deterioration by replenishing a patient’s reservoir.
Restoring muscle using adult stem cells
has already been demonstrated in patients
with myocardial infarctions and stress urinary
incontinence, he continues. Moreover, injecting cells has slowed age-related muscle and tissue deterioration in mice.
Surprisingly, in mouse models of muscular
dystrophy and DMD, injected cells appear to
restore muscle tissue without producing dystrophin, he says.
“For more than 20 years we have believed
that we need to restore dystrophin in these
patients. But adult stem cells appear to help
without producing any more dystrophin, perhaps by secreting growth factors, cytokines,
and as yet unknown substances or mechanisms,” Huard says.
At the end of the day, the goal is to help
patients as soon as possible, something adult
cells are more likely to accomplish because
they are not burdened by the safety issues surrounding embryonic cells, he says.
“Embryonic stem cells are a beautiful research tool, but there are many safety questions,” Huard says. “Adult stem cells are good
listeners. They listen to the host and then secrete what’s needed for repairs. If you inject
them into muscle or bone structures, you can
improve healing. I really believe differentiation of stem cells is not required to help these
DOI: 10.1002/ana.22328
December 2010
MIT Competition a Catalyst
for Student Innovation
ith a grand prize trophy
shaped like a giant aluminum Lego piece, the annual
International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition has quickly become the
science fair of all science fairs for
students interested in the nascent field of synthetic biology.
In just 7 years, iGEM, held
at the Massachusetts Institute
The 2007 UC Berkeley team that developed Bactoblood,
of Technology (MIT) in Cam- an artificial blood substitute, using genetically detoxified
bridge, has grown from an inter- E. coli.
im mid-winter course with 16
students into an international contest pitting ‘parts’ available for teams as well as registered
130 teams of students from universities from academic laboratories. Right now we have
around the globe against each other.
101 laboratories registered,” he says. “These
With projects ranging from an artificial teams are really creative because the goal is to
blood product built from a “chassis” of ge- impress the judges. What’s impressive is how
netically detoxified Escherichia coli bacteria, much work they can get done in such a short
to a novel system for studying protein (see amount of time.”
“Expressing Themselves” sidebar), teams have
The number of teams competing has
designed and developed ideas that have even grown exponentially since the first competiseasoned researchers wondering, “Why didn’t tion in 2004. Five teams participated in 2004,
I think of that?”
13 in 2005 (the first year the competition
At the outset, participants receive a kit of went global), 32 in 2006, 54 in 2007, 84 in
standard genetic building blocks, or BioBricks 2008, and 112 in 2009. In 2010, 130 teams
to use in developing synthetic bioengineering are vying for first place, Rettberg says.
applications in living cells. Drawing from a
“Many serious biologists had doubts that
growing repository of genetic and biological students could get anything done within the
samples, students refine them into working bi- time frame, but some teams have patented
ological parts over a period of just 16 weeks.
their work, and others are in the process of
Each team has at least 1 academic advi- doing so. One team withdrew because their
sor, but the students themselves do most of institution wanted to get the patent process
the work, according to iGEM director Randy underway,” Rettberg notes.
Rettberg, PhD, Principal Research Engineer
Over the past 5 years, iGEM has been colat MIT’s Department of Biological Engineer- laboratively amassing its Registry of Standard
ing. He tells NerveCenter that the project’s goal Biological Parts, a centralized, open-source
is to foster the responsible development and genetic library of more than 5,000 BioBricks.
application of next-generation biological tech- As teams and academic labs use these parts to
nologies while encouraging students to pursue develop new biological tools, they submit poscareers in synthetic biology.
sible new BioBricks for consideration.
“We have what we call a community of
The teams are funded by education grants
from private foundations and corporate sponsors, many of them leaders in the fields of genetic and bioengineering research.
It’s in Their Blood
The competition is an exceptionally motivating and effective teaching method, says John
Dueber, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering
at the University of California (UC), Berkeley,
who has served as a team advisor in 2 competitions and is preparing to do so again in 2011.
He was the advisor of the 2007 UC Berkeley team that demonstrated how genetically
detoxified E. coli bacteria could be converted
into an inexpensive blood substitute called
Bactoblood. They also added a process for
freeze-drying the product for long-term storage and use in areas where refrigeration is limited.
The Bactoblood team was 1 of 6 finalists
in the competition that year; the team from
Peking University in Beijing, China, took
home the Lego trophy for designing a bacterial “assembly line” that could have medical
applications down the road.
“This is a unique opportunity for undergraduates, and now high school students,
to participate in designing and developing a
synthetic biology project from conception
through presentation—the whole process,”
Dueber tells NerveCenter. “The competition
really motivates a lot of students to get in
Johannes Kaestner |
For the 2010 iGEM competition, a team of students
from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, developed a novel biosystem that accurately and visually reports whether a gene is being transcribed and/
or translated, and whether expression is failing due to
misfolding in the periplasm or cytoplasm. This discovery could be of interest in neurological disorders involving misfolded proteins such as Alzheimer disease,
prion disease including transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, and sporadic inclusion body myositis,
the most common muscle disorder in older persons.
Regarding protein misfolding, the University of Calgary’s system can also tailor
expression levels of a given protein to optimize production, increasing the likelihood
of obtaining functional protein.—KS
this field.”
Especially important, he notes, is that students are exposed to a real-world laboratory
research and development team process. “As
in the real world, a scientific project often has
to change directions in midstream as new data
emerge, and [students] have to adjust accordingly,” he says.
In the Bactoblood project, E. coli was
first genetically modified to remove its toxicity. The team killed the DNA in the bacteria,
creating what were essentially empty shells of
protein. They then inserted genes to produce
hemoglobin. Once the substance turned red,
the students knew hemoglobin was being
manufactured and transporting oxygen.
The team included undergraduates studying bioengineering, biochemistry, and even
anthropology; 3 high school students; and
graduate and faculty advisors. With the competition now behind them, work on Bactoblood is on hold, and the students are pursuing
other projects, Dueber says.
“The competition is pretty impressive,”
he notes. “One of the greatest things is that in
the end, the students have to step back, look at
the entire project, then prepare a presentation
before the iGEM judges. For most of them,
this is the first time they have had to make any
presentation like this, but in the real world,
researchers have to do this all the time.”
Although team members often act inde-
pendently, there is a heightened level of interaction among all of them, and in the end they
all take ownership, Dueber says. “From an
instructor’s standpoint, it’s interesting to see
some of the really creative and ambitious projects the student teams propose. A lot of this is
high-risk, cutting-edge work, even if they are
only demonstrating proof of principle.”
A report released last summer by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson
Center found that the US government has
spent an estimated $430 million on synthetic
biology research since 2005, about 3 times
more than the European Union and 3 individual European countries—the Netherlands,
United Kingdom, and Germany.
Regional Playoffs
Meagan Lizarazo, iGEM’s Assistant Director, tells NerveCenter that the competition’s
growth and the number of bio parts in the
registry have both been remarkably rapid.
There are now 1,400 parts available for teams
and registered laboratories and around 5,500
physical samples.
“The registry is always evolving,” she says.
“The emphasis has now shifted from quantity
to quality. We have become much more selective in which new ones we add and require
much more comprehensive measurement and
characterization of new samples submitted for
the registry. Our emphasis has always been on
open-sourcing the samples, which is completely different from traditional biology.”
The competition has become so large that
iGEM will begin to hold 3 regional competitions starting in 2011—1 in the Americas, 1 in
Europe, and 1 in Asia. Finalists from these will
then compete in a world championship at the
iGEM Jamboree in Cambridge.
“There’s no reason this won’t keep growing,” Lizarazo says.
iGEM provides materials and other support for academic laboratories that register and
instructors interested in competing or becoming more involved in synthetic bioengineering.
Details can be found on the iGEM website,
Expressing Themselves
DOI: 10.1002/ana.22326
Synthetic Biology: The design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems or the re-design of existing, natural
biological systems for useful purposes.
Volume 68, No. 6
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innovation, nervecenter, students, mit, competition, catalyst
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