In conversation : iGEM IISER Bhopal

This year, we plan on devising a highly selective therapy for solid tumour cancers. We aim to make it safer, cheaper and more effective than the current conventional therapies.

Team iGEM, IISER Bhopal

The rise of synthetic biology has evoked mixed reactions from the masses. While the Synbio proponents hail the discoveries in the field, the opponents have a view that ‘Humans are breaching their limits and trying to become God’. What is your take on this aspect?

We feel that we, as humans, have an inherent responsibility to help sustain the delicate ecological balance and thrive synergistically with our other Earthly inhabitants. This drives us to develop approaches for the most efficient use of resources, albeit we aren’t very sustainable in doing that. We have unintentionally formed an invasive niche in the ecosystem. Synthetic biology has definitely given us the power to tweak this balance but to disturb it brings with itself a wide range of consequences. This brings up the crucial question of ‘Just because we can, should we?’. Every technological revolution has faced backlash in its initial phase. Nobody really likes change, but over time, things tend to normalise and the technological contraptions which were once feared become commonplace. We think that is what will happen in the case of the synthetic biology revolution too. We think that just labelling synthetic biology as ‘playing God’ makes us naive reductionists. Tailoring, curating and then experimenting would definitely be more fruitful and productive than beating around the bush on subjective and sentimental topics that are almost definitely never going to reach unanimity.

iGEM strives to promote research at different levels and encourage students to come up with practical solutions to real-life problems. What is the goal of your project for this year’s competition and how did your team brainstorm and narrow down on the idea chosen?

This year, we plan on devising a highly selective therapy for solid tumour cancers. We aim to make it safer, cheaper and more effective than the current conventional therapies. Our main idea was to look for solutions towards the betterment of women, so we explored various diseases that affect women’s health frequently, and we found breast cancer to be a particularly nefarious one. As we explored the potential and limitations of our proposed solution, we found that it can be extended and generalised for all solid tumour cancers.

Curiosity-driven research, even with all its awe-inspiring charm can often hit a roadblock without the backing of the all-powerful sponsors. How did you go about garnering funds for the project?

For funding, we are trying to seek every possible opportunity, like the grants available for iGEM projects, and we are working hard to grab them. Our college authorities are also very supportive of our funding purposes. Besides, we are also connecting with various companies working in synbio trying to find sponsors. We’ve also participated in and won 2500$ worth Promega grant for 10 iGEM teams.

The iGEM journey is a mosaic of new experiences quite different from usual lab work science students encounter during their formal courses. How do you think participating in a research intensive competition like iGEM impacted your scientific thought and mettle? 

After extensively reviewing literature pertaining to our project, we were amazed by the complexity of the myriad interactions that balance the entire machinery. So, this made us realize what can happen if we change a specific part in the gene cassette, how it will affect the working system, how safe it is to use that part and the consequences if we modified it. Through the entire process, we had to rethink our core understanding of the topic and question the fundamental basics which we thought we knew all along. So, even though it seems like a competitive and research-intensive journey, it has proved to be quite humbling for us.

One of the striking features embellishing iGEM projects is the need to make them responsible and good for the world throughout the project lifecycle. What are the human practices being taken up by the team? How did the team try crafting their human practices to be effective in the wake of a global pandemic?

For human practices, we are contacting the primary stakeholders of our project-cancer patients (survivors and those going through it) and their families to get their insights into the treatment phase, personal thoughts and suggestions, and overall experience. We are also meeting with research experts to make our project more robust and doctors to understand how our solution can be both practical and feasible. Apart from this, we plan to launch cancer awareness surveys and engage audiences on various media platforms to spread awareness about the disease and its lesser-known aspects. Due to the global pandemic, we are trying to use online platforms to their fullest potential by arranging webinars and science talks.

What are the practical implications of your conceived idea and who are the stakeholders of your project?

On interviewing doctors, we found that the treatment will be practical and effective in combination with other cancer treatments like radiotherapy. It was also suggested that the treatment could be best produced as an intravenous injectable. Cancer patients, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies are the stakeholders of our project.

What do you think are the major milestones and challenges to be crossed in bringing your idea to fruition in the future?

We feel that the solution we are providing will be very effective since it is going to be a targeted therapy for solid tumour cancer and has been designed in the safest way possible to ensure least to no side effects. Current challenges include its infectivity in those regions of tumours which have normal blood supply, how the communities will perceive our solution, and what policies need to be satisfied for its production.

As the research community worldwide has started to adapt to the current climate and shifted to online platforms, iGEM has seen an increased focus on the aspects of mathematical and computational modelling. What are the pros and cons of participating in a challenge such as iGEM via the online mode? 

When talking about pros, we feel that it’s easy to meet people via the online mode. It also becomes easy to record meetings with professors and experts in the field. Also, online platforms offer various opportunities for spreading awareness about the problem, which, if used to its full potential, can prove to be very beneficial for the outreach of the project over the globe.

Cons are that sometimes, people lose attention and focus over the topic being discussed. Also, in some studies, we are completely dependent on the literature data available and not having access to the lab makes our results less definitive and more derivative.

What, according to you, are the benefits and other perks that students can obtain by participating in iGEM? How do you propose to popularise this competition among the mainstream scientific institutes and universities in India?

A person involved in iGEM gets to learn about a lot of aspects. They develop scientific aptitude and an entrepreneurial spirit. Some even get a knack for the coding aspect involved in modelling. Reading and understanding papers to analyze results help us in gaining valuable experience for future expeditions. This diversity in the competition exposes us to the idea of collaborative aspects of interdisciplinary research. The experience we gained by organizing the All India iGEM meet will prove to be helpful to plan similar events for a broader audience in the future and hopefully reach out to more universities.

How do you envisage the world of synthetic biology a decade from now?

Seeing the current developments in synthetic biology, we think it will spread in multiple fields – from medicine to environment and even manufacturing. Synthetic biology will play a productive role in the daily lives of people, but we cannot ignore the fact that it can also become a potential bioweapon. Thus, strict conditions and safety implications would be needed.

Finally, what would be your message to students who are looking forward to participating in the upcoming editions of iGEM?

The competition encourages students to look for problems and develop a solution in the safest way possible, which furthers research and development on the topic directly or indirectly. This is more of a fun experience than a competition where you interact with your teammates and other teams. You also get to know a lot about how the general audience perceives your idea. You get to spread science, and as it’s aptly said, ‘Knowledge is gained by sharing’; you get to learn a lot of things in the process. So not just academically stimulating, the competition also sharpens your confidence, speaking skills, teamwork and mindset whilst dealing with different scenarios, with different people and under different settings.

The months-long arduous journey full of ups and downs would be amazing, so we would say, ‘don’t be afraid to explore novel methods, be cynical of your solution to its core and support and stick with your teammates no matter what.’ 




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