Fighting bowel cancer with proteins

The iGEM team in the laboratory
Surrounded by test tubes and pipettes: the iGEM team spends a lot of time in the laboratory. (Image: FAU/Luisa Macharowsky)

The liquid in the little tubes might look rather uninspiring, but it may potentially be hiding a treatment for bowel cancer. This is what Franzi and Marie are researching together with the rest of the FAU team taking part in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition –a competition in the field of synthetic biology. It is the fifth time that students from FAU have taken part. And they have done well: in 2017, they won a silver medal, and in 2018 the team won bronze. This year, they are looking for a new method in the fight against bowel cancer. ‘Bowel cancer can be treated quite well, as long as it hasn’t metastasised. However, once the cancer has spread, it is difficult to treat and the rate of mortality among patients is very high. That is why we want to try and do something to help,’ explains Marie, who studies integrated immunology and is a member of the group’s laboratory team. They have developed an antibody known as a BiTE which is hoped will fight the cancer. BiTEs have two antigen binding sites: one attaches to an endogenous T cell, the other to a bowel cancer cell. T cells are white blood cells and have an important role to play in the immune system. The BiTE attaches them to cancer cells and activates them, allowing them to disarm the malignant cells.

A choice of three approaches

The scientists have developed three approaches for engineering the antibody. For the competition, they have to discover which method is best. The first method involves synthesising the two-part BiTE with a single DNA sequence in bacteria. In the second method, they have created the two antigen binding sites separately from each other, before joining them with a connective element. This approach is especially practical: as the two parts first have to be connected, the part which recognises the bowel cancer can be replaced. This means that the BiTE can also be used to fight other types of cancer. While the first two approaches are biological in nature, the third is chemical. In this method, the medical researchers create two complete antibodies: one antibody recognises the T cells, the other the bowel cancer cells. They then cut off the variable antigen binding sites and combine them to form a BiTE.

Anyone can participate

The liquid which Marie (left) and Franzi are pipetting may potentially be hiding a new treatment for bowel cancer. (Image: FAU/Luisa Macharowsky)

The competition involves much more than just laboratory work. Participants also have to arrange funding for the laboratory and the competition by finding sponsors. And they have to market their project well: a website and PR are a must. This is where those specialising in a subject other than science also have a role to play: ‘We always try to involve team members from other faculties as well. Someone from the Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Theology would be great for publicity. Or we could do with a couple of IT experts to take care of the website, especially if they already have experience in that area,’ says Franzi, who is studying cell and molecular biology and is taking part in the competition for the second time.

‘There’s always something to do, we’ll find something for everyone,’ adds Marie. In autumn, some of the team will go to Boston. There, they will give a half hour presentation on their project. Throughout the competition, they will also display a poster and be available at a stand to explain what exactly they did and which approach they took. It sounds like a lot of work, but it is worth it. ‘I learnt a lot of new methods while working in the laboratory. I also learnt to work more independently. We have to arrange funding ourselves, draw up laboratory plans, manage our own time and create our own website. Of course, I also met a lot of nice people and was able to find out all about their interesting projects as well,’ reports Franzi.

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