iGEM research Credit: Christina Prudencio , Christina Prudencio

A cure for cancer? Not yet. But the new method of bacterial treatment developed by the Penn iGEM Team might revolutionize the way we look at science.

From Oct. 12 to Oct. 14, the team competed at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Americas East Regional Jamboree held at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

The Penn iGEM team, which presented research on bacterial therapy, was selected as one of the four finalists in the competition. After a second round of presentations, the team was named the Grand Prize Winner of the competition out of the 43 teams that competed. The four team members — Engineering and Wharton senior Mike Magaraci, Engineering and Wharton sophomore Ashwin Amurthur, Engineering junior Peter Qiao and Engineering and Wharton senior Avin Veerakumar — will be competing in the World Championships at MIT, held Nov. 2 through Nov. 5.

The team’s research was groundbreaking in the field. Whereas most current therapies rely on either spatial or cellular targeting in order to affect change in a living system, Penn iGEM’s research combined the two existing models.

“Current therapies either do one or the other,” Magaraci said. “Take, for example, antibodies. When you use antibodies, you target a specific cell type. The same thing goes for chemotherapy. Or you could do something like radiation therapy which affects all cells in a targeted area. Our idea is to create a system that would deliver a therapeutic that targets a specific cell type in a specific area.”

The iGEM team’s method uses E. coli bacteria engineered with receptors that recognize a specific type of protein abundant on the surface of breast cancer cells. These E. coli, when exposed to blue light, produce a protein that kills the cells to which they are attached.

“The idea is that if you know where the tumor is, you only shine light on the area with the tumor – that’s the spatial targeting,” Veerakumar said. The cellular targeting, he added, refers to the bacteria’s ability to bind primarily to cancer cells, which have large amounts of a protein the E. coli is engineered to target.

The team also submitted six different biobrick designs in the competition, winning the award for Best New Biobrick Device, Engineered.

Biobricks are similar to circuits in electrical engineering in that you take a bunch of parts and put them together and make it work the way you want it to, Qiao explained.

The iGEM team members spent nearly 60 hours a week over the summer and close to 35 hours a week during the semester conducting research for the competition.

“Mostly, this summer was building [and engineering] this system in bacteria,” Veerakumar said. During the semester, the team conducted the experiments and collected the data which they ultimately presented at the competition.

Jordan Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Bioengineering and one of the team’s advisers, described the team as “extremely focused this year” as they were “doing research at the level of graduate students and postdocs.”

The team’s motivation stemmed from both their investment in the research and the success of their results. Eventually, the members hope to publish their research in a scientific journal.

“What we’ve done is novel and fairly impressive and it makes us want to work harder,” Qiao said.

“One of the reasons why we put in so much work is that a lot of the system worked during the summer,” Veerakumar said. “[Initial] success bred motivation for us.”

What Magaraci is most excited about, though, are the applications of their new method. “It’s a platform for other scientists, other labs, to build off of. To say that we’re curing cancer would be going a bit too far. But to say that we’re hoping to get people thinking about using bacteria to cure cancer and other diseases is what we’re really trying to do.”

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