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UCLA iGEM brings protein cage project to synthetic biology competition

By Kelly Gu

Sept. 25, 2015 7:07 a.m.

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the team developed a streamlined drug transportation system. In fact, it is currently developing the system.

Students scribbled equations on a white board, crunching numbers in an effort to find the right concentration of each reactant. The team used computer modeling to rearrange a protein model, a twisted mass of blue, yellow, orange and green spirals and loops, in preparation for the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition in Boston, which began Thursday.

This week, UCLA iGEM is presenting on protein cages, a new project that can be designed to deliver drugs to a specific part of the body.

UCLA iGEM is a student-run team created to compete in the annual iGEM competition, where 259 collegiate and high school teams present their synthetic biology projects. The team incorporates research from different fields such as biotechnology, biochemistry and molecular biology to create new biological devices or systems.

“As synthetic biologists, we’re almost like those mad scientists you imagine,” said David Yao, founder of UCLA iGEM and a former neuroscience student. “We’re really curious on how much we can tinker things and manipulate nature.”

After last year’s silk project, which incorporated spider silk in textiles and tissue support structures, the team is now working to manipulate proteins to develop better drug transportation within the body.

After a member pitched the idea upon working with these cage-like architectures in a separate lab, the team voted to undertake a similar project. With guidance from Sri Kosuri, their faculty advisor and assistant professor in chemistry and biochemistry, the group of 13 undergraduate students is developing a streamlined drug transportation system because of its many applications in the medical field.

Conventional, non-targeted drug delivery can break up clots all across the body, which can lead to life-threatening blood loss. The team is developing a protein cage that will open up and release the drug only when exposed to the right environment, foregoing the possible negative side effects that might occur, Yao said.

“It’s a beautiful process of creating a biologically-sourced shell for your drug,” said Tyler Lee, a fourth-year bioengineering student and returning member. “It’s not just drug delivery, but targeted drug delivery.”

The team aims to create a thrombin cleavage site into the protein cage that would negate the effects of thrombin, a natural enzyme involved in blood clotting, and break up clots in specific parts of the body.

“Thrombin already has significant relevance,” Lee said.Heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death, and clots in the arteries are how heart disease and strokes occur. It has so many applications.”

Phillip Nguyen, a fourth-year biochemistry student and head coordinator of the protein cage project, said he is concerned funding sources could run dry if the team doesn’t produce tangible results. The project requires about $25,000 in funding this upcoming year.

The team ran a Spark campaign and raised about 75 percent of the funding goal.

Because the team is student-run, the planning and problem solving are done with little professional assistance, Lee said.

“When you’re lost, no one can help you,” Nguyen said. “A lot of the project was trial and error. I had to keep doing things over and over again until I got it right.”

A typical week for iGEM students includes working with other team members to troubleshoot problems, holding Skype conferences with CEOs of potential sponsors like Bolt Threads – a tech company that also works with spider silk – and meeting biweekly to keep members up-to-date on the project’s progress.

“Across billions of years, cells have (created) very elegant solutions,” Yao said. “We try to hack into those solutions and repurpose them for our goals, drawing inspiration from nature and using its building blocks. Nature has already done a lot of the hard work.”

Winners of the competition will be announced Sept. 28, the last day of the competition.

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