By Ioanna Moriatis
Photos by Ahmad El-Nemr
Motivated to unlock the potential of synthetic biology, a team of undergraduate students have developed a groundbreaking approach for treating COVID-19 patients, earning them a silver medal at the 2020 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
Biology majors Rana Salah, Salma Abou Elhassan and Ahmed Magdy ’20 led a team of 13 AUC students in pioneering a theoretical model that promises to spur even more innovation in the field of biology, should their research be continued in a lab setting.
“This has a huge impact in terms of early detection methods for any type of virus with known genetic sequences, and it also provides a fast and robust tool to develop in the case of a future pandemic, God forbid,” shared Anwar Abdelnaser, assistant professor at AUC’s Institute of Global Health and Human Ecology and the team’s research supervisor. “In terms of synthetic biology, the research can be further optimized to not only be a diagnostic tool but also a therapeutic one.”
Unlike the approach of a vaccine, the team’s research revolves around a therapeutic model for the treatment of COVID-19patients that would work to eliminate the virus by preventing it from replicating itself within the human body.
Their model hinges on the use of a toehold switch — a type of circuit or a set of genes that code with a particular purpose. “We worked on applying the contemporary methods of synthetic biology through toehold switches loaded with siRNA (small interfering RNA) targeting the replicate mRNA (micro RNA) of SARS-CoV-2 to inhibit the virus replication cycle. This is then combined and carried as cargo to be delivered with the aid of a virus-like particle system,” Abou Elhassan explained.
One of the main challenges the team faced in developing their research was determining how to safely deliver the toehold switch they developed into patients, Salah explained. “We worked first on developing virus-like particles, or decoy COVID-19 virus particles, that mimic the virus in order to reach only the cells that are targeted by the virus itself.”
Eventually, their research led them to the discovery that antivirus vectors infused with spikes of the COVID-19 virus produced within a plant cell system could boost the production of the virus-like particles for delivery into the human body. “This research has huge implications for the potential treatment of patients with COVID-19,” said Abou Elhassan. “In the long term, our research could help us develop an effective, cost-efficient treatment to stop the virus replication cycle and invasion of other healthy cells.”
Applied in the form of a diagnostic tool, the team’s model could also be used beyond a therapeutic purpose to reshape the way we currently test individuals for COVID-19. “It can be applied as a diagnostic kit that uses cells from outside the human body, so we wouldn’t require a PCR test,” said Salah.
Due to restrictions on indoor gatherings as a result of the pandemic, the team did not have access to labs for the competition and rather focused on testing their research through theoretical modeling. In the future, Salah, Abou Elhassan and Magdy are hopeful that they can conduct lab work that would allow them to refine their model for application in the real world.
“We hope that our model will make its way to the appropriate pharmaceutical company,” said Magdy. “This will enable us to conduct further research and go through the clinical testing process, which will make this possible treatment affordable and accessible to many people. Yes, we are trying to save the world, and we will achieve our goal.”
The team’s research applies methodologies and knowledge from synthetic biology, a growing interdisciplinary field of science and engineering with potential for combating health challenges. “It’s actually a kind of science that integrates everything,” Salah explained. “It is at the core of the sciences, combining biology, chemistry, computer science and machine learning. A lot goes into this phenomenal new area. It can solve many problems, such as cancer and diseases.”
According to Salah, despite the endless innovative possibilities attached to the field of synthetic biology, it has yet to attract enough attention, particularly in Egypt. “If people in our community started to be more aware of synthetic biology, we would have a lot more experts and students enrolling in the field,” she said. “We don’t currently have a well-developed or established research center focused on this field, so this was part of our main idea.”
With the support of an undergraduate research grant from AUC, Salah, Abou Elhassan and Magdy were able to recruit a team of 13 students from a range of departments — biology, business, actuarial science, engineering, chemistry and journalism and mass communication — to build a business model and outreach campaigns highlighting the value of investing more in this budding sector. “There was a lot of diversity, and that’s the point,” Salah explained. “Synthetic biology is a place where everyone has an opportunity. This also really fits with AUC being a liberal arts University, and we’re grateful for the support we received from AUC.”
The team used dynamic approaches, including biotech games, educational workshops, webinars, social media campaigns and art contests, to expose more youth to their research and generate interest in synthetic biology. Through their outreach efforts, the team was even able to raise public awareness of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and the steps people can take to protect themselves and others.
“We went to an orphanage to talk to kids who didn’t know anything about biology,” Salah said. “We used games and art contests, and that made them more willing to take precautions. Now they understand what we are facing, and they also understand that they still have the opportunity to work in biology. We also talked to high school students from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) schools. We developed workshops about biosafety and biosecurity in the form of a crisis simulation. So we focused on the measures people need to take if there is a certain crisis to be solved through synthetic biology.”
Apart from earning recognition for their innovative approach to COVID-19 treatment, the students also distinguished themselves in iGEM as one of two teams from Egypt and one of three teams from Africa participating in the competition. “This is a worldwide competition that has no restrictions on the number of participants from any country,” said Abdelnaser. “Winning the silver medal in the team’s first participation is a testament to the quality of teaching and research at AUC. In addition, this recognition promotes AUC as a global academic institution that was able to participate and win in a worldwide competition while operating under pandemic conditions.”
For team leads Salah, Abou Elhassan and Magdy, their participation and recognition at such an internationally renowned competition represents a major accomplishment and source of pride. “I felt like a global citizen, like we were part of a bigger message, which is connecting the world together through science. The moment we won, I felt both elated and proud of myself, my team, my University and, of course, my country,” said Abou Elhassan.
Now working as an international team mentor for iGEM, Salah hopes to support more students in Egypt, especially those at AUC who are interested in participating in iGEM in the future. She has plans to hold the iGEM Africa launch event at AUC in November 2021, a step toward establishing the University as an iGEM hub. “What I would really like is to launch an iGEM student organization at AUC that would help students join every year and represent AUC internationally at one of the most prestigious competitions in synthetic biology.”