UBC BIOMOD designs a biomolecular cancer screen

From a new way to target the delivery of cancer drugs to a new blood test to screen for difficult-to-detect cancers, biomedical researchers are constantly working to find novel ways to harness the power of biology and chemistry to advance the field of medicine and provide better health outcomes for patients.

While the two new advances mentioned above may sound like the product of a team of professional researchers, they were actually developed and prototyped by a small team of dedicated and passionate students from UBC BIOMOD, a club devoted to biomolecular design.

Essentially, the team is committed to making synthetic molecules that interact with molecules inside organisms.

Incorporated as a club in 2015, UBC BIOMOD focuses its work every year on the annual BIOMOD competition in San Francisco, which brings together undergraduate design teams from around the world to showcase their biomolecular design projects.

The project the 2017 team developed was a prototype for a blood test that utilized miRNA (RNA molecules that help to regulate cells) as a way to screen for different kinds of cancers. The team focused their efforts on screening for lung cancer because of its high mortality rate and the poor quality of existing screens to diagnose it, but the test the team developed is modular, so it can be modified to screen for any type of cancer.

The team began brainstorm project ideas in February 2016 and finalized their cancer screen idea around June, at which point they began procuring the necessary supplies and developing a plan for developing their design. They began their lab work in earnest in September, and their year culminated over the weekend of November 3, 2017 with the BIOMOD competition in San Francisco.

While the exact science behind the screen is, needless to say, complicated, the general idea is fairly easy to grasp.

At its core, the test relies on the fact that, when the body has a certain kind of cancer, it produces more of certain kinds of miRNA than it normally would. Taking advantage of this fact, the team designed a small DNA probe that changes shape when it binds with the particular kind of miRNA associated with lung cancer.

Since miRNA is usually present in the blood at very low levels, the DNA probes that bind with the target miRNA are also replicated thousand-fold to ensure they can be detected. After replication, the team can use a fluorescent marker to determine how much of the miRNA associated with lung cancer is in a patient’s blood, and, by extension, whether they likely have the cancer or not.

While they only came away with a silver finish in the 2017 competition, the team is still immensely proud of what they were able to accomplish after putting in countless hours of hard work together, sometimes working in the lab until midnight.

“Something that united all of us is that we were all really passionate about helping people,” said Amir Reza Meysami Fard, a fourth-year chemical and biological engineering student, and team president. “Because we were spending that time, we wanted to work on something that really matters.”