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Newcastle awarded Gold at iGEM 2019

Newcastle University students win gold medal in Boston with ‘Diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease’ project.

A team of Newcastle University students have been awarded a gold medal and special prize nomination at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston.

The team, made up of six students from the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and School of Computing, developed an indicative diagnostic tool to detect the presence of early Parkinson’s disease biomarkers.

About the Project

Inspired by the fact that the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is only currently possible after the appearance of motor symptoms, the team worked to develop a diagnostic tool to detect biomarkers associated with early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

The team engaged with physicians and patient groups, including Parkinson’s UK to understand the current state of diagnosis and treatment for the disease, and support available for people with the disease.

Learning that there are no diagnostic tests for Parkinson’s disease before the motor symptoms appear, the team explored different biomarkers that could be used for early indication of the disease.

The team identified several potential biomarkers associated with Parkinson’s, but these are also associated with other diseases, including HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer's Disease.

The major innovation came from the team was their observation that through using multiple biomarkers, a specific diagnostic test could be developed offering the possibility of early diagnosis to patients.

The team worked over the summer to develop sensitive and accurate biomarker tests that could be combined into a laboratory-based diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s. One of the tests uses a recent innovation of the CRISPR/CAS genome editing tool, called SHERLOCK, that can detect the presence of the messenger RNA molecules that encode specific proteins.

Using this tool, the team hoped to be able to detect the presence of the RNA encoding complexin-1, an mRNA that is produced in decreased levels in Parkinson’s disease suffers. Working with local physicians with an interest in Parkinson’s disease, the team developed a concept for their multi-biomarker diagnostic test which members of the team plan to test and develop after the competition.

Competing at iGEM

The iGEM competition marked the culmination of a summer of hard work, with the team producing a website and travelling to present their work in Boston, MA, USA. The iGEM competition is held annually and aims to introduce students to the exciting field of Synthetic Biology.

Synthetic Biology involves the engineering of organisms to produce novel, and potentially valuable functions, in areas as diverse as medical diagnostics and treatment, environmental clean-up, and biomaterials production. Over 3500 students in 300 teams compete annually, making this one of the largest global science competitions.

Teams compete from prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oxford, Yale, MIT, NTU Singapore, Kyoto, and the Sorbonne; and the competition sponsors include the FBI, GenScript, Ginkgo Bioworks, Opentrons, NEB, Integrated DNA Technologies, Agilent Technologies, and Autodesk.

“iGEM enabled me to learn how cutting-edge science approached from a multi-disciplinary angle can be used to tackle a problem close to many people’s hearts.”
Connor Trotter

“I am grateful for my opportunity to work on the iGEM project as it has given me the knowledge and tools for using synthetic biology in the future. The ability to come up with your own project to address a serious problem, with students from a variety of disciplines gives you a real taste of using science in the real world for good.”
Matthew Rogan

Find out more

Newcastle’s team consisted of undergraduate students from the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and the School of Computing; working with a team of advisors and instructors from these schools and the Schools of Engineering and Architecture Planning and Landscape. Details on the project are available here

Team roster: Karen Fung, Alice Goddard, Daniel Golubovskis, Matt Rogan, Connor Trotter, Emily Walker

Instructors: Alice Banks, Jasmine Bird, Bradley Brown, Alba Iglesias Vilches, Colette Whitfield

Principal Investigators: Thomas Howard, Jem Stach, Jon Marles-Wright, Dana Ofiteru, Angel Goñi-Moreno

Advisors: Vasilios Andriotis, Anne Borland, Martyn Dade-Robertson, Harold Marc Andre Fellerman, Angharad Gatehouse, Ethan Hack, Maxim Kapralov, Alex Laverick, Maria del Carmen Montero-Calasanz, Frank Sargent

Sponsors: Newcastle University, BBSRC, Wellcome Trust, IDT, Synthego

The iGEM 2019 Team: Karen Fung, Alice Goddard, Daniel Golubovskis, Matt Rogan, Connor Trotter, Emily Walker
iGEM 2019 team

published on: 27 November 2019