Last October, a team of undergraduate students from Bilkent won a silver medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, for their project titled “Smelling Cancer.” This year, the Bilkent UNAMBG (UNAM/Microbiology and Genetics) team is further developing the project in order to compete in iGEM 2017 against teams from across the globe, in the hope of winning the gold.
The team was founded only last year, for the purpose of participating in iGEM 2016. Having learned the ins and outs of the process, a new, larger team has returned to once again enter the fray. Original members Büşra Merve Kırpat, Simay Ayhan and Ayşe Naz Ozantürk – MBG students who are working as senior undergraduate researchers in UNAM’s Synthetic Biosystems Laboratory, led by Assist. Prof. Urartu Özgür Şafak Şeker (MSN
and UNAM) – have been joined by MBG sophomores Berk Ürgen, Artun Bülbül, Azra Atabay, Ezgi Dikici, Eray Ulaş Bozkurt and Büşra Ata, along with advisor and previous iGEM competitor Nedim Hacıosmanoğlu, a master’s student at UNAM, and Mert Canatan of the Department of Computer Engineering, who is developing the Bilkent UNAMBG website. The team is supervised by Dr. Şeker and Assoc. Prof. Işık Yuluğ (UNAM and MBG).
The aim of the “Smelling Cancer” project is to enable easier diagnosis of breast cancer as well as other cancer types through employing biological circuits in bacteria. Early diagnosis is considered crucial for effective treatment of cancer, but current diagnostic methods are often invasive and painful. Breath tests appear to be a promising noninvasive, real-time technique that permits the monitoring of metabolic status.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in exhaled breath make possible in vitro detection, classification and discrimination of disease because the concentration of specific VOCs in the exhalation can increase or decrease depending on the type of disease and microorganisms present. The UNAMBG team has designed synthetic genetic circuits coupled with enabled genetic logic gates in bacteria using CRISPRi technology, which can process signals from VOCs in the exhaled breath of patients in order to diagnose breast cancer. The next step is to fine-tune this system, along with adding more gates that will be able to differentiate between healthy individuals and those who have lung, colon or prostate cancer. The overarching goal of the project is to produce a new kit that can be used to routinely, easily and noninvasively diagnose several types of cancer.
The iGEM competition has been in existence for over 10 years, with the intent of encouraging students to work together to solve real-world challenges by building genetically engineered biological systems with standard, interchangeable parts. Teams learn to manage their own projects, advocate for their research and secure funding. Students have worked on projects related to environmental bioremediation, new medical delivery systems and alternative energy sources using synthetic biology; the UNAMBG team is competing in iGEM’s diagnostic track.
The Department of Molecular Biology and the Office of the Provost are supporting the Bilkent team’s participation in the competition. However, to be able to continue its experiments and travel to MIT to represent Bilkent and Turkey, the team is still in search of additional sponsors. Those interested in learning more and supporting Bilkent UNAMBG may contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media at https://www.facebook.com/UNAMBG2017/ and https://twitter.com/BilkentUNAMBG