Fighting bowel cancer with proteins

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A new cure for bowel cancer in the making. (Picture: FAU/Luisa Macharowsky)

Research for the iGEM competition

Studying is just dull theory? Think again! At FAU, students carry out independent research into synthetic biology – and take part in an international competition.

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 researched 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.

Students from FAU have already taken part in the competition several times. And they have done well: in 2017, they won a silver medal, and in 2018 the team won third place. For one of the competitions, for example, they looked for a new method to treat bowel cancer. ‘Bowel cancer can be treated quite well, as long as it hasn’t metastasized. 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 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 which play an important role in the immune system. The BiTE attaches them to cancer cells and activates them, allowing them to disarm the malignant cells.

Zwei Studierende im Labor, fotografiert durch ein Regal voller Probenfläschchen.
The iGEM team members spend a lot of time between tubes and pipettes (Image: FAU/Luisa Macharowsky)

A choice of three approaches

The students developed three approaches for engineering the antibody. Their first method involved synthesizing the two-part BiTE with a single DNA sequence in bacteria. As a second method, they 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. Using this method, the students created two complete antibodies: one antibody recognizes T cells, the other the bowel cancer cells. They then cut off the variable antigen binding sites and combined them to form a BiTE.

Open to everyone

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 specializing in subjects other than science 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 has already taken part in the competition twice. ‘There’s always something to do, we’ll find something for everyone,’ adds Marie.

At the competition, participants give a half hour presentation on their project. They also have a booth where they can display their poster and are available to explain what exactly they did and which approach they took.

It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s worth it. ‘I learned a lot of new methods while working in the laboratory, and 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.