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A golden performance

The Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine team recently competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston, where they captured a gold medal. The team includes, from left: Morgan Litschko; Justine Ring; Candice Tang; Danielle Ciren; Julia Grein; Dragos Chiriac; Jia Tanwani; Malak Elbatarny; Kersh Theva; John Allingham; and Joanna Semrau. Absent: Amanda Fantin. (Supplied photo)

By engineering ice-binding proteins to help donated organs withstand extended storage periods, a team of Queen’s University students won ‘gold’ at the top international competition in the field of synthetic biology and provided a potential lifeline to many critically ill patients in the future.

Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine (QGEM) recently took part in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston, where they presented their project to genetically re-engineer ice-binding proteins to allow them to be used as cryo-preservatives for donated organs. 

“There is an issue with the viability of organs and the amount of time that they’re viable before they enter a recipient is constrained. Right now there aren’t great methods to extend that,” says Justine Ring, (Artsci’16), a veteran QGEM team member. “So knowing that we’ve got surgeons here at Queen’s and clinicians as well as biochemists who are interested in projects that may help protect organs against adverse storage conditions, I think we went at it two different ways. Seeing that there is a problem, how can we fix it, as well as here is a set of tools we have available to us or that we think we can make, and here’s how we can apply it.” 

As a result, the donated organs would be able to be stored longer and potentially reach more people in need of a transplant.

The QGEM team is completely run by students, with members coming from a wide range of disciplines such as life sciences, biochemistry, biology, chemical engineering and computing. 

John Allingham, Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences and Canada Research Chair in Structural Biology, who acts as an advisor to QGEM, says this year’s team was particularly strong in some key areas such as molecular biology and protein design, which helped lift them to the gold medal. 

QGEM is also advised by Peter Davies a Professor from the same department, Canada Research Chair in Protein Engineering and one of the world’s foremost experts on ice-binding proteins.

Initially the team was curious about simply improving the activity of ice-binding proteins as cryo-preservatives, Dr. Allingham says, but they also had to consider the methods of large-scale production and stability of these proteins. 

What the team came up with was a pair of projects – Ice Queen and Ice Finity. Ice Queen was created to enhance ice-growth inhibition activity, the characteristic activity of ice-binding proteins, by increasing their local concentration and locking them in ideal ice-binding configurations. Ice Finity was aimed at improving the stability of anti-freeze proteins so they can prevent ice growth in a range of harsh conditions that would normally hinder or destroy them. 

The team worked throughout the summer before heading in late September to the iGEM competition. 

“The competition brings together over 300 teams from around the world, which in the spirit of synthetic biology, combine and create different genetic components for a practical purpose,” says Dragos Chiriac, the co-director of the incoming 2016 QGEM team. 

By meeting the rigorous criteria set out by iGEM such as creating new biological parts, collaborating with other schools, and implementing successful human practices, the Queen’s iGEM team earned a gold medal. 

The learning experience offered by the team goes beyond the lab as QGEM is run much like a start-up biotech company. 

“QGEM is a multifaceted team just like any other team,” says Malak Elbartany, who was responsible for managing the team’s budget. “So we needed the funding that enables us to do all these projects and we need to track all kinds of aspects of the team similar to the way a business is run.”

The team received funding and support from the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, the Faculty of Health Sciences, the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, the Faculty of Arts and Science as well as through the Student Initiative Fund and the Summer Work Experience Program at Queen’s. And as Dr. Allingham points out, the team members gain valuable real-world experience that they will carry on beyond their studies at Queen’s. 

“It really is like starting a business. They have to go out and seek investors, pitch their project and describe how it’s going to benefit the Health and/or biotechnological prosperity of Canadians, and then they must actually develop a product that may have some type of marketability,” he says. “Through this process, we’re providing a unique and empowering educational opportunity for the next wave of future innovators and fledgling biotech groups.”

To learn more about QGEM and the opportunities offered, visit the QGEM website.