A team of six UEA students have won gold awards for a project that ultimately aims to reduce colon cancer rates, at an international competition to solve real-world challenges with genetically engineered biological systems.
The team, called ‘House of Carbs’, focused on engineering methods to alter the amount of a fatty acid called butyrate, which helps maintain a healthy gut and reduce tumour growth.
They presented their ideas along with more than 260 international, multidisciplinary teams at the iGEM Giant Jamboree in the US – an annual event where university and high school iGEM teams come together to present their synthetic biology projects.
The UEA team was named “NRP-UEA Norwich” to reflect links between UEA and the Norwich Research Park. At the end of the competition the team were awarded a gold medal for their project, and also were finalists in two of the categories for prizes.
Colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in England and Wales, with 30,000 new cases diagnosed every year and a registered cause of death in half that number.
Flavia Valeo, a member of the team who is studying Biomedicine at UEA, said: “Recent studies have suggested that high dietary intake of resistant starch may reduce colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. Resistant starches escape digestion in the small intestine and are fermented by bacteria in the colon. A small proportion of these colonic bacteria produce short chain fatty acids such as butyrate, which can prevent certain changes in cells and therefore lower the risk of colon cancer.”
The iGEM competition encourages university and high school student researchers to work in teams and solve real-world challenges by building genetically engineered biological systems. Each team runs their own projects, advocates for their research, and secures funding. Teams are also challenged to actively consider and address the safety, security and environmental implications of their work.
This year’s iGEM team consisted of six undergraduate students from the Schools of Biological Sciences, Chemistry and Computing Sciences demonstrating the strength of Synthetic Biology at UEA and as a collaborator in the Eastern ARC.