UBC iGEM takes gold at iGEM Giant Jamboree

UBC iGEM took home a gold medal at the 2021 iGEM Giant Jamboree held last November.

The team’s project, titled “DetecTME: Untangling the immune-modulated tumour microenvironment using a tumour-colonizing bacterial vector and reporter system,” was also nominated as a finalist in the Best Diagnostics Project category.

Supported under the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation (iGEM), UBC’s team was one of many competing design teams. According to its website, the annual iGEM Giant Jamboree showcases the work of “370+ multidisciplinary local teams solving local problems, all over the world, using synthetic biology.”

Synthetic biology, as described by UBC iGEM executive director and fourth-year honours applied animal biology student Janella Schwab, is “a relatively new field” which merges systems biology, molecular biology and engineering.

This year, UBC iGEM’s DetecTME project centred around the development of a sensor that would profile the environment of a tumour in a less invasive and more convenient manner than a traditional tissue biopsy. According to its abstract, this project created “an in vivo Salmonella-based biosensor for minimally invasive diagnosis and real-time monitoring of tumour immune activity.”

Parneet Sekhon, a fourth-year microbiology and immunology student and UBC iGEM vice-director, explained that tumours can differ between and within patients, making a diagnostic tool that gauges details of individual tumour environments “really important.” This is reflected in the team’s broader goal which, according to Sekhon, is to explore “how we can use synthetic biology approaches within personalized medicine.”

As the iGEM Giant Jamboree was held virtually this year, UBC iGEM found out about its award and nomination at a smaller meetup in Vancouver alongside two other teams. The victory presented a triumphant moment for UBC iGEM, given that “a lot of things went wrong throughout the year [and] the year was really stressful,” according to Schwab.

She described the team’s success as “really rewarding and really surprising.” For Sekhon, the most rewarding aspect of their success was “seeing a project that you’ve been so invested in for so many months, and such an interesting project as well, and then seeing it come to fruition.”

Though their victory at the iGEM Giant Jamboree was certainly sweet, UBC iGEM strives to expand beyond the yearly competition.

This includes presenting their work at conferences — the team won an award last year at UBC’s Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference and has previously presented their work at the Harvard National Collegiate Research Conference and the Stanford Research Conference.

Emilia Chen, last year’s executive director for UBC iGEM, and Morris Huang, a UBC iGEM alum, are the coordinators of a student-directed seminar, MICB 448S: Introduction to Biological Machines: Harnessing the Power of Design Thinking for Biotechnology Innovation. Chen described the seminar as “bringing our student design team experience to more students at UBC” while allowing upper-year STEM students the opportunity to learn more about biological engineering and the process of creating projects that solve real-life problems.

Finally, the iGEM team is in the process of writing a chapter about student design teams for an upcoming book on genomics and the bioeconomy.

The team also works to cultivate a sense of community on both a local and global scale. It has collaborated with Geering Up and the Code Initiative to support education and outreach initiatives. As well, it has partnered with Brazilian iGEM teams to develop workshops and scientific materials for those in underserved communities.

For Sekhon, this sense of community is at the heart of her iGEM experience.

“To see all the work that everyone’s willing to put in and all the passion that everyone has, it inspires you to do better not only in the team but in your classes as well, and to learn for the sake of learning and not just for grades,” she said.

“It pushes you into innovation and into creativity.”