By Bobinec, Greg on November 25, 2019.
The University of Lethbridge Collegiate iGEM team set its sights on solving a problem that affects nearly nine per cent of the world’s population, and earned a gold medal for their efforts at the International Genetically Engineered Machines World Jamboree in Boston.
The collegiate team was accompanied by the U of L’s High School iGEM entry which achieved a silver medal standing for their project Algulin, which is the development of a novel method for the manufacturing and oral delivery of insulin to diabetics.
“We wanted to do something different and meaningful, something that will have a positive effect on the people around us,” says Dia Koupantsis, third-year biological sciences student. “We developed the project Algulin, an oral insulin manufactured in microalgae, in an attempt to democratize the manufacturing of insulin so that it can be widely available for individuals who need it.”
Diabetes is a global issue that requires lifelong management for those affected, imposing a large economic health burden that amounts to a $673-billion global expenditure annually. After interviewing diabetic patients, doctors and pharmacists, the iGEM team went about trying to find a way to deliver insulin to patients orally. The challenge, which has been attempted many times previously, is to find a way to get the insulin through the stomach acid and into the small intestine to absorb without becoming seriously degraded. Their solution – microalgae.
Algulin is an oral insulin produced in microalgae, and after testing three different microalgae, the group determined Cyanidioschyzon merolae was its innate acid resistant membrane which could survive the stomach environment. Additionally, with a carbohydrate-based cell wall, C. merolae would degrade in the small intestine and allow for the therapeutic insulin to be absorbed through to its intended target, the portal vein.
“It was a challenging project because it involved working with an organism we’d never used before,” says Luke Saville, fourth-year biochemistry student. “This prompted challenges in learning how to grow the organism and how to genetically engineer it to produce our insulin.”
U of L chemistry and biochemistry instructor Angeliki Pantazi is one of the team’s faculty mentors and praises the team for the work they put in and the further potential for their project.
“The gold medal is exciting but it’s a little bit less about what we came back with and more about how we are training the next generation of scientists and leaders through these programs,” says Pantazi.
“It’s a very student-driven program and I was impressed with why they wanted to pursue this project. They were concerned about people not being able to afford insulin and inspired by the first two Canadian scientists who isolated purified insulin and how they didn’t patent it for themselves but instead offered it to humankind for free.”
Other members of the collegiate team include Catrione Lee, Kalob Barr, Jesse Holbein, Allyson Lawrie-White, Landon McCabe, Joshua Omotosho, Kera Whitten and Dong Ju Kim.
All four local high schools contributed to the team that presented CADAR at the World Jamboree, a project designed to create a rapid diagnostic tool for identifying bacterial pathogens. The project was inspired by their witnessing of increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria. The high school team consisted of Alice Zhang, Andy Sun, Aroma Pageni, David Basil, Dewuni De Silca, Elisha Wong, Julien Todd, Karen He, Linda He, Katie Vienneau, Mark Lea, Michelle Wu, Mina Akbary, Natasha Woitte, Rachel Avileli, Rebecca Avileli, Shada Aborawi and Thomas Byrne.
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