A team of undergraduates at William & Mary has earned high honors in the world’s largest synthetic biology competition for engineering a potential COVID-19 therapeutic.
iGEM, which stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine, announced the winners of its annual international student competition Sunday at the iGEM 2020 Virtual Giant Jamboree. A team of William & Mary students earned a Gold Medal and two top awards for Best Therapeutics Project and Best Model.
“This is truly an extraordinary achievement,” said Margaret Saha, Chancellor Professor of Biology, who has served as William & Mary’s iGEM faculty advisor for all seven years that the university has competed in what has been dubbed the World Cup of Science. “This was very difficult to accomplish, particularly doing everything remotely.”
iGEM’s Best Therapeutics Project award considers entries that illustrate potential contributions for new therapies or techniques. The iGEM web site explains that the Best Model award is based on the understanding that “synthetic biology is an engineering discipline and part of engineering is simulation and modeling to determine system behavior."
“William & Mary began our team with all sorts of interesting ideas and projects, and then -- COVID-19,” Saha added. “We made the difficult decision to continue, having to switch our project very late in the game, and meeting across 12 time zones at all hours of the day and night to accommodate our students in China and elsewhere.”
The team consists of ten students from a variety of different majors: Beteel Abu-ageel ’22, Avery Bradley ’23, Matt Dennen ’22, Riya Garg ’23, Min Guo ’23, Josh Hughes ’22, Adam Oliver ’21, Julia Urban ’20, Wei Wang ’22 and Hantao Yu ’23. Mainak Patel, assistant professor of mathematics, served as a co-advisor to the team.
After watching the pandemic change their own lives, and that of millions all over the globe, the team decided to set their sights on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19.
In simple terms, they used mathematical modeling to design and computationally evaluate a living drug, explained Urban, who is in her third year on the team and serving her second year as co-captain. The team designed the probiotic to monitor and respond to inflammation and immune response in a way that modern drugs, including Remdesivir and Dexamethasone, are not capable of doing.
“Living materials can regenerate and self-heal; they can respond to their environment in a way that non-living materials cannot,” Urban said.
William & Mary competed against 249 other universities from across the globe in this year’s competition. The university has a history of IGEM excellence. A William & Mary team won the iGEM Grand Prize in 2015, and was first runner-up in 2017. The competition requires students to be engineers, chemists, biologists, mathematicians and computer scientists all at once.
It’s how science is done in the 21st century — team-based, multidisciplinary, quantitative and focused on finding solutions to difficult problems. This year, in particular, presented new ways of thinking as the entire competition moved to an online format. The William & Mary team’s focus on the COVID-19 virus was in keeping with a new direction at iGEM.
"We're breaking new ground in iGEM this year," Randy Rettberg, co-founder and president of iGEM said in a release. "We're focusing on the giant problems of the world. This is not the old iGEM; this is the future iGEM."
Of 249 participating teams, 168 Gold, 45 Silver and 26 Bronze medals were awarded, with dozens more awards recognizing excellence for projects tackling global challenges, including food security, clean water, human health, biodiversity, climate change and more. View the full results for the 2020 iGEM competition here.