UCSC's 2022 iGEM team brings home gold medal, earns nomination for best therapeutics project

Team UCSC at the 2022 Grand Jamboree
Team UCSC at the 2022 Grand Jamboree

For the third year in a row, a team of UC Santa Cruz undergraduates won a gold medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Grand Jamboree. The annual competition draws together student teams from around the globe to present their synthetic biology projects that aim to address 21st century grand challenges. 

More than 350 teams from 45 countries participated in the competition in Paris, France. Team projects presented at the competition focused on timely topics, including climate change, diagnostics, therapeutics, environmental science, manufacturing, and artificial intelligence. 

The UCSC 2022 iGEM team project, known as Helo, addressed the high costs and limited availability of Type 2 diabetes medication through the production of a yeast-based therapeutic that can be grown locally and affordably. 

Not only did team UCSC win gold at the competition, but they were also one of five projects in their division to be nominated for “Best Therapeutics Project,” making them the first team in UCSC iGEM history to receive both a best projects nomination and a gold medal. 

iGEM team member Lauren Paule and co-captain Elizabeth Beer are shown working in the lab.“The weight of being nominated for best therapeutics project isn’t conveyed to the public in the way that it should,” said Elizabeth Beer, co-captain of this year’s team and biomolecular engineering (BME) student. “We were in the second largest division, up against 26 other projects, and to be one of the five best projects nominated was a huge success. We were screaming because we were so happy and proud.”

The 2022 team includes 14 Baskin School of Engineering undergraduates and is led by David Bernick, associate teaching professor of biomolecular engineering. Throughout the year, the team received mentorship from UCSC Ph.D. student Eric Malekos and additional support from Hartnell College intern Gabino Guzman. Guzman was selected to join the team through a community engagement partnership between UCSC iGEM and Hartnell College, a community college located in Salinas, CA. 

A yeast-based Type 2 diabetes therapeutic 

Before carrying out their proof-of-concept in the lab, the team spent months brainstorming, researching, and connecting with global and community health experts, including endocrinologists and UCSC Global Health Professor Matt Sparke, to ensure their project focus was viable.

Additionally, they led a number of community engagement efforts throughout the year, which included participating in local community outreach events, hosting Soquel High students in their lab, working with the Girls in Engineering 2022 summer program, and speaking to students at their former high schools.

“One of our goals for our project was to increase accessibility of synthetic biology, starting with our diabetes medication idea and extending to engaging our community members, especially the ones who have been historically underrepresented in STEM, in a conversation about synthetic biology and its benefits,” said Kiana Imani, co-captain of this year’s team and BME student. 

People living with Type 2 diabetes either lack insulin sensitivity or resist insulin. A class of medication currently used to treat Type 2 diabetes is called GLP1 RA, glucagon-like-peptide-1 receptor agonists. GLP1 RA medications enhance insulin secretion, improving insulin sensitivity for diabetic patients, but are expensive and inaccessible to many areas around the world. 

Because Exendin-4, a commonly used GLP1 RA, is a naturally-derived peptide and can be produced within a microbial host, team UCSC set out to produce a bio-encapsulated version of Exendin-4 using Saccharomyces cerevisiae—also known as baker’s yeast—as the host to ensure the medication can be grown locally and affordably. 

iGEM team member Thiago Brasileiro Feitosa is shown working in the lab.Working in the lab every weekday over the summer, the team made major strides in proving their concept and modeling their therapeutic design. After choosing baker’s yeast as their host organism, they carried out a gene insert design method to produce Exendin-4 in the host organism. By the end of summer, they were successful in inserting the Exendin-4 gene into the yeast’s genome. 

Celebrating project milestones, looking toward the future

The 2022 jamboree was a culmination of the team’s work completed over the past year. The team fundraised more than enough to send every member to the competition. This was significant for co-captains Beer and Imani, who noted many of the teams at the jamboree were only able to send a few of their members.

“We knew our fundraising efforts were not complete until we raised enough money to send all 17 of us to the competition,” Imani explained. “It was a lot of work, but we did it.”

In the first two days of the jamboree, the team presented their project during both closed-door judging sessions and breakout sessions to the public. On the closing day, the celebration began when the team found out they were nominated for “Best Therapeutics Project” and won a gold medal. 

Teams are judged on their virtual project posters, wiki pages, and video presentations. They are awarded gold medals if they demonstrate excellence across multiple categories and uphold the key iGEM principles of respect, community, and honesty.

I am honored by the persistence that this team brought to the project,” Bernick said. “These students, like most of our students, endured a college experience where labs were delivered over Zoom, social interactions were few, and yet this group came together to consider projects of global importance, where the skills of the bioengineer could be brought to bear for the common good. While this is a common trait of UCSC iGEM, it became strongly evident with the 2022 team.”

Co-captains Imani and Beer spoke highly of their team’s dynamic, praising their team’s unwavering motivation and dedication and collaborative nature. Along with the captains being pushed to learn valuable leadership and organization skills, every team member had to learn how to work together and leverage each other’s strengths to progress their project forward. The team quickly became a strong group of friends, bonding over their shared interests in making a positive impact in their communities.

“iGEM is by far one of the best experiences we’ve had as undergraduates,” Beer said. “This is an experience that I know we'll carry with us forever and will help propel us forward in our future academic and professional careers.”

Several members from the team are interested in moving forward with their project either through independent study work or as an extracurricular activity. Team Helo’s next steps will focus on bioencapsulation, dosing, and distribution of the yeast-based therapeutic treatment.  

Visit the team’s wiki page for more information about the team and their project.