iGem participants show their team spirit at the awards ceremony. iGem participants show their team spirit at the awards ceremony. iGem participants show their team spirit at the awards ceremony. (Photo: iGEM Foundation via Justin Knight / Flickr)

How college students are advancing the fight against cancer

One of the largest student biology events just wrapped up on the campus of MIT. Learn how the attendees' work could one day save lives.

How do you kill cancer cells without killing healthy ones at the same time?

It's a question that's dogged scientists for years as they work to develop new treatments, accurate diagnoses, prevention methods and further research to prolong cancer patients' lives. It's widely known that chemotherapy works by killing cancer cells, but it also kills healthy cells, which can lead to severe pain, illness and life-threatening complications for the patient. It's one of the most effective cancer treatments available, but what if there was a less invasive method? What if there was a way to pinpoint which cells are healthy and which ones are cancerous, and only eradicate the latter?

That's exactly what a group of students at Ben Gurion University in Israel, unveiled at the annual iGem conference, one of the largest student biology events in the world. Using an innovative combination of molecular biology and engineering, the team devised a system they called "Boomerang," which detects cancer cells by identifying two cancer-specific promoters in cells, and only targeting those cells for treatment. The team's work earned them five awards at the competition, including First Runner Up and Best Health and Medicine Project.

A team of students from Ben Gurion University in Israel cheers after hearing they won first runner-up in the iGem competition at MIT in Boston.A team of students from Ben Gurion University in Israel cheers after hearing they won first runner-up in the iGem competition at MIT in Boston. (Photo: iGEM Foundation via Justin Knight/Flickr)

The budding BGU scientists were among more than 2,700 students at iGem representing institutions around the world, from The Netherlands to Taiwan to the United Kingdom and several American universities, who converged last week on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Participating students, from high school up to graduate school, spent the previous summer working on projects ranging from non-toxic insect repellent to multi-purpose space moss, then presenting their ideas at iGem.

Students discuss their engineering project in the iGem display room.Students discuss their engineering project in the iGem display room. (Photo: iGEM Foundation via Justin Knight/Flickr)

Here's a video on how the BGU team's Boomerang system works (animated with Legos, in case you weren't already intrigued):

Elsewhere in the competition, a team from The Netherlands figured out how to use an at-home printer to print 3D objects, a feat that earned them a grand prize in the overgrad (above undergrad) category. Top honors in the high school category went to a team from Taiwan that designed a treatment for tissue damage due to chronic inflammatory conditions. In undergrad, a team from Heidelberg University in Germany proposed a new way of looking at nucleic acid and was named second runner-up.

Here's an overview of iGem and what some other forward-thinking students are working on:

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