A new self-test for colorectal cancer has earned Wageningen students a gold medal during the finals of iGEM, an international competition to improve the world with synthetic biology. Additionally, they were nominated for best presentation. The student team developed a pill containing genetically modified, probiotic bacteria that produce a blue substance when encountering tumours in the intestine. Blue poop means a chance of colorectal cancer.
The self-test, called Colourectal, is a living, diagnostic test that helps detect early stage colorectal cancer in a user-friendly way. The test is a useful addition to the population-based colorectal cancer screening programme, in which early stages of cancer are often overlooked. With the new self-test, the Wageningen students hope to reduce the million victims of the disease each year.
The students' idea became feasible through the iGEM competition. This international competition offers students the opportunity to tackle a major scientific project and to share scientific progress and outlook with each other. This year, over 350 teams competed against each other. "I am proud of what we accomplished as a team," said Max Allewijn, team captain. "That applies to both the experiments and how we presented our project to the outside world."
The projects of the 350 teams varied widely, but all revolve around synthetic biology. This science reprograms cells or microorganisms to make useful substances or to remove unwanted ones. It could lead to producing medicines or purifying water. On a large scale, synthetic biology offers prospects for tackling societal problems. The iGEM competition lets students use their creativity to do just that.
Handing over the baton
The iGEM team of Wageningen University & Research consists of eleven students from the fields of biotechnology, molecular life sciences and biology. They were supported by scientists from the laboratories of Microbiology and Systems & Synthetic Biology.
"I am impressed to see this team grow and how they integrated multiple synthetic biology techniques towards an effective and safe living diagnostic system," says Nico Claassens, team Coordinator of Colourectal. Fellow coordinator Robert Smith adds: "We are very proud of the team's achievements. They have done a great job discussing colon cancer research and genetically modified organisms with the public. We look forward to seeing what the team does in the future."
Even after the final, the team will continue to work on the project. In January, they will hand over the baton to a new team of Wageningen students who will once again set up a project to make the world healthier, better or safer with synthetic biology.