iGEM in a Pandemic: Reflecting on Human Practices

Today’s blog is written by the University of Copenhagen iGEM Team.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition has 257 teams of students competing this year. Despite all of the unique difficulties we’re all facing in 2020, the University of Copenhagen is competing once again. This year’s project involves a unique approach to Chronic Inflammatory Diseases (CIDs).

CIDosis: Measuring Interleukins with a Wearable Patch

The University of Copenhagen iGEM team of 2020 consists of 9 dedicated students with a burning passion for everything science. This year, our project is CIDosis. We are developing a biosensor for measuring interleukins in the sweat of patients with Chronic Inflammatory Diseases (CIDs) such as rheumatoid arthritis, IBD and multiple sclerosis.

The biosensor is integrated into yeast cells that will be embedded in a patch, which will be placed somewhere on the patient’s body. The patient can then go about their day, and the patch will absorb the sweat that they give off during the day, along with its constituent proteins.

Some of these proteins will be interleukins; signaling molecules secreted by cells in the case of inflammation, to signal to other cells to join the fight against an intruder – whether that intruder be imagined or real. As such, the level of interleukins in the sweat will reflect the level of inflammation in the patient’s body, as more inflammation will give rise to more secreted interleukins, and thus more molecules of biomarkers our biosensor will be subjected to. When the biomarkers reach our biosensor, they’ll trigger a transduction pathway leading to the production of a pigment.

The intensity of the pigment color will correlate to the amount of inflammatory biomarkers that were present in the patient’s sweat.

Using this color intensity as a guideline, patients and medical staff will be able to gauge the amount of inflammation in a patient’s body just by looking at the patch’s change in color. This will help both patients and doctors being able to monitor flare-ups in diseases such as IBD.

Furthermore, it will also be a valuable tool for monitoring the pharmacological treatment-response of patients with CIDs. This is especially important, as only a third of patients respond well to the medicine they’re prescribed, and on top of that, another third of patients that respond well to a treatment will have a diminishing response after a year, when it comes to rheumatoid arthritis, for instance. Our patch would therefore provide both patient empowerment, as it’ll grant patients the ability to gain a better understanding of the nature of their disease through self-monitoring, but it will also create a valuable output for health professionals, as they’ll be able to better understand the progression of the illness in question, and the response to new medication over time on a patient-by-patient basis.

The Importance of Tailored Treatments

It’s that last part that is the most important to us: Two patients, despite having the same diagnosis, can have vastly different experiences with their illnesses, and react entirely differently to different triggers. Through working with our project, we’ve come to realize just how important tailored treatment is, and especially how important it is to work with science as a social affair.

As always, we have tried to stay current with the latest research, expert advice, and patient needs. However, this year, that kind of work has been tough to do. Our target group is coincidentally the one most at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, and conducting interviews or meetings in person with the people in it would be irresponsible.

With that in mind, our human practices work has primarily been confined to virtual interviews and social media interaction, both of which are great tools to reach out to a larger audience. Undeniably though, it takes a lot of the personal feel out of meeting with your target group. In the early days of the pandemic, we had been talking about the dream scenario, where we could follow a patient along for a day and hear more first-hand accounts of what it’s like to live with a CID. Experiences like these would be incredibly valuable to our work as young scientists and our passion for the field, and we were sad to realize that circumstances don’t allow for them.

On the other hand, what the circumstances do allow for is reflection. During the iGEM season we have been reflecting a lot on the ethical aspects of our project. For example, what does it mean to promise a monitoring device such as ours to a group of people who are constantly suffering under the unfairness of having a CID? Is it safe for us to assume that more information about an illness is good, or will it instead act as a constant reminder of your illness? Does it make sense for us to refer to our project as a “device”, when, in reality, we’re unsure of how far we can get with developing it?

During the past few months we’ve been dealing with these questions more than we thought we would ever have. Indeed, compared with previous years, we have not had the same luxury to work on the science in parallel with having human-human interaction about the science. However, we have taken out more time for deeper reflection about our project, the problem, and what our role in all of it is. Through these reflections, we believe that we’ve gotten more clarity about why our project is so important, and feel more comfortable promising that it’s good and responsible for the world.

What we’re working on is not a finished product you can find in a supermarket. Instead, it’s an open door to important conversations about recognizing invisible diseases, the individuality of patients, patient empowerment in general and more, and that, we think, is incredibly important. That’s why this year, our human practices work is different. This year, we take time out to reflect.

To learn more about CIDosis, visit the team’s wiki.

Competing in iGEM? Learn more about how you can get support for your iGEM project at our website and check out our resources for iGEM teams, including Q&A webinars and tips for creating scientific posters.

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