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McMaster University’s ‘SynBio Team’ earns silver medal at international iGEM competition

By Blake Dillon

An interdisciplinary team of McMaster University students has received a silver medal at the 2021 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Competition, which featured nearly 400 student-led teams from universities all over the world.

Sponsored by the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research, the David Braley Centre for Antibiotic Discovery, and other institutes and offices from across McMaster, the SynBio Team spent the past year exploring a novel biological treatment for adherent invasive E. coli (AIEC), a group of pathogens linked to causing and exacerbating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Team co-presidents Kian Yousefi Kousha and Hugo Yan say they chose to focus on IBD this year not only because of the scientific challenge it presented, but also because of the social impacts that their research could have.

“We have a lot of young individuals who struggle with IBD, and it has been shown to impact them socially and academically,” says Kousha, a fourth-year neuroscience student. “And, although there are some medications to manage symptoms, it’s interesting that — here in the 21st Century — there is no cure for IBD.”

Kian Yousefi Kousha (left) and Hugo Yan (right), SynBio’s co-presidents.

The SynBio Team has been working to rectify this by constructing a genetic circuit that can detect both inflammation markers and pathogen-specific quorum factors and selectively eliminate AIEC — something Yan notes is a highly novel approach to treating IBD.

Over the course of this research, the SynBio Team has received considerable mentorship from IIDR members Brian Coombes and Zeinab Hosseinidoust.

“There is an outreach aspect of iGEM that involved reaching out to experts in the field for feedback and Dr. Coombes was really helpful,” says Kousha. “He took the time to meet with us, consult on the science aspect of our work, and participate in an international webinar. We really appreciate this support.”

Meanwhile, Hosseinidoust served as the team’s supervisor and principal investigator. Yan, a first-year MSc student and a recent Biomedical Discovery and Commercialization graduate, says that Hosseinidoust’s previous research involving engineering novel therapeutics for IBD made her a natural leader for the team, and that both she and the trainees in her lab brought a wealth of expertise to the table.

While the SynBio Team’s silver medal is the highest designation ever bestowed upon a McMaster team at iGEM, the co-presidents believe that the sky is still the limit.

“We’re all very proud of this work; however, the silver medal is not exactly what we were aiming for,” Yan says. “But now we have set new expectations for ourselves and for McMaster, so, next year, we will achieve that next level — not only the gold medal, but hopefully the grand prize too.”


Blake Dillon