EPFL's iGEM team wins Gold in 2018 synthetic biology competition

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The EPFL team competing in the 2018 iGEM competition in Boston won a Gold Medal as well as nominations in the Best Therapeutics and Best Software categories (2428 October).

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition takes place every year, with around 350 teams of students from high schools and universities around the world competing with synthetic biology projects they have developed and worked on in their home institutions. The 2016 iGEM competition is featured in the recent documentary Genesis 2.0.

In 2018, the EPFL iGEM team consisted of twelve students, mainly from life sciences (at the Master’s and Bachelor’s levels), with two from the School of Basic Sciences (Physics and Chemistry) and one from the College of Management of Technology. The team’s project, named CAPOEIRA, was a personalized vaccination system that aims to turn a cancer patient’s immune system against the patient’s tumor. This approach, called immunotherapy, is currently one of the main research streams at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences.

«iGEM quickly demands a lot of lab work with many concepts that are new to students.»

It is just incredible to see thousands and thousands of students from around the globe who have the same passion about synthetic biology and their projects as your team,” said Daniel Nakhaee-Zadeh Gutierrez, who handled the team’s logistics. “We faced three main challenges during the project,” added team president Reza Hosseini. “First, how to build an amazing project from scratch and how to make different elements fit into the bigger picture. Second, knowing when to continue trying to solve a problem and when to stop. And finally, how to communicate efficiently, especially at the end of the project when everything is coming together.”

The support of EPFL and our supervisors has been invaluable,” said Gutierrez. “I believe that bringing in students from other disciplines greatly improved the team’s results. From wet-lab to bioinformatics and even managerial skills, iGEM is a great way to learn about synthetic biology and bioengineering in general in a very condensed amount of time.”

iGEM quickly demands a lot of lab work with many concepts that are new to students,” said team secretary Samuel Santhosh Gomez. “But the most valuable skill I learned was how to work in a team setting on a research-like project. I would definitely recommend iGEM to any student interested in exploring how synthetic biology can be used to solve today’s problems.”

The annual competition is organized by the iGEM Foundation, an independent non-profit organization “dedicated to education, competition, the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration.” The work for the competition, which occupies the teams for the better part of a year, culminates at the iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston, where projects are presented and judged by bioengineering experts. In 2018 the Giant Jamboree took place between 24 and 28 October.

EPFL has been taking part in the iGEM competition since 2008. The School of Life Sciences funded the 2018 iGEM team with additional generous financial support from the Swiss Industry Science Fund and Nikon Instruments. The students worked on their project at EPFL’s Discovery Learning Laboratories.

This year, the team was supervised by Professor Sebastian Maerkl from the School of Engineering and the Interfaculty Institute of Bioengineering, with three PhD students acting as additional instructors.

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