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  • 2016 08 30

    Vilnius iGEM team: this competition allows enormous amount of intellectual freedom

    Written by Jacinta Sherris

    The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is a non-profit organization that promotes education and the advancement of synthetic biology through its international iGEM Competition. Each year, students from universities all over the world gather in Boston, United States to present their latest discoveries and innovations in relation to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Last year, a group of students from Vilnius University, known as Vilnius iGEM were awarded a gold medal for their breakthrough discovery on how to prevent bacteria reproduction through an invention called ColiClock. This year, Vilnius iGEM is being sponsored by some of the biggest biotechnology companies in Lithuania (such as Thermo Fisher Scientific Baltics and Amilina), and are focused on helping students throughout the process of creating a GM probiotic that would treat people suffering from the disease known as Phenylketonuria.

    Vilnius iGEM team

    Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a rare genetic disease that does not allow a person to break down amino acid phenylalanine. If a person with PKU ingests foods containing protein, phenylalanine accumulates in their brain and causes severe mental retardation. People suffering from PKU nowadays are very limited in the types of food they can eat; they are often restricted to powdered phenylalanine-free meals.
    I had the pleasure of speaking with two brilliant students from Vilnius iGEM, Marius and Rugile, about last year’s project, their current project, where they get their motivation from, and how they see themselves in relation to Lithuania’s fast emerging life science industry.
    Why did your team choose to research GMOs and what inspired you to go in this direction to create Coliclock and a probiotic for people with PKU?
    Marius: The iGEM competition asks us to create some type of GMO that would bring benefits to humanity. For example last year we created GM bacteria that would have a biological clock, and we can use this technology for humanity’s safety. Everyone is afraid of GMOs despite all the benefits they can bring society; this is a problem due to lack of knowledge on the subject. We noticed this issue and conveyed a survey to find out exactly how much people actually knew on the subject and found that most people were unaware of how to control GMOs, and were therefore afraid of them. This is when we realized we needed to create something that would control the spread of GM bacteria and how the idea for ColiClock was born. The idea to create a GM probiotic to treat people with PKU was proposed by a medical student in our group. We have students from all the different life sciences fields participating so it is interesting that we have the options of working with so many different sub sectors of life sciences.

    On the iGEM website, it says that teams are encouraged to incorporate ethics, sustainability, and social justice into their projects. In what ways do your projects contribute to the wellbeing of people in Lithuania and all over the world? In what ways would it impact ethics, sustainability, and social justice?
    Rugile: iGEM competition consists of many parts and taking society into account is definitely an important aspect. One thing we do is spread knowledge about GMOs; we go to schools, hold discussions, and try to introduce knowledge to the general public so they are less afraid and more aware of the facts and benefits GMOs can bring.
    Society isn't concerned about the bacteria’s life, ethics comes into play when we affect human life. Therefore I do not believe Coliclock has a big part in the question of ethics because it deals solely with bacteria life and not human life. Ethics is involved in our current project of creating a GM probiotic bacteria for people suffering from PKU to ingest because it is deals with the health and body of humans; it can be a bit scary for people who are afraid of GMOs. It goes back to my previous point of changing the view people have of GMOs by spreading knowledge so people would not be afraid of them. We need to let people know that GM products are safe and how we are controlling them.
    How easily do you believe Coliclock and your latest project could be commercialized? Do you believe the prospects of commercialization and profits are motivating for Lithuanian life scientists?

    Marius: Coliclock could be more easily commercialized because current GMO control mechanisms focus on making the organism infertile. Our control mechanism is much better for genetically modified bacteria. Coliclock allows bacteria to be alive just as long as we need for it to do its job. The issue with the probiotic for PKU is that for it to become commercialized it would have to undergo clinical trials which are very expensive and take a long time.
    PKU is a rare disease that often pharmaceutical companies are not interested in creating a treatment or medicine for the people suffering from it; this is because the market they could make profit from is too small. Our idea is that because we are students, now is the time that we could create something to give to humanity without thinking primarily about profit. Even though we keep in mind the importance of business when creating a new invention, we also think altruistically.   We want to create something for humanity first and if it ends up bringing us profit that is great, but profit is not our primary motivation.
    The issue of income is definitely important in Lithuania especially because we are a young country in the European Union with many older countries. The European Union dictates what we can and cannot produce and they unfortunately have very strict restrictions on GMOs. The problem in Lithuania is that the process of turning your ideas into concrete business products is much more difficult than in countries like the United States due to E.U. restrictions on the production of GMOs.
    Would you call your current project of creating a GM probiotic bacteria that will treat people with PKU as more of a type of medicine?
    Marius: Yes because the current focus for treating people with genetic diseases is gene therapy. Gene therapy is the process of trying to erase or change a type of gene that is causing the illness in a person’s genome. This type of practice is very difficult and can sometimes be problematic so we tried to find a better way to help people with this illness. We focused our current project on trying to mitigate the effects PKU has on a person suffering from the disease through the usage of GM bacteria.
    Rugile: We are not editing a person’s genome in order to cure them of a genetic disease; we are simply introducing GM bacteria in a way that would treat the symptoms someone has because of the disease. The person with PKU that will drink the probiotic we have created isn't cured, but they will no longer have to suffer the affects the diseases causes in their bodies. It is also interesting because we are creating a new type of probiotic that could be expanded upon and modified to not only treat people with PKU but many other metabolic diseases. This is a new type of medicine that could be used to initiate a new way of helping people with metabolic diseases. The possibilities our creation of GM probiotic bacteria can bring in the future are endless.
    Do you believe your participation in this international competition is important for Lithuania and Lithuania’s life science industry?
    Rugile: I believe our participation is important for Lithuania because we are presenting alongside other internationally recognized universities and showing the world that Lithuania has bright minds and that we have advanced technologies and science industries. It is definitely an important message to send to the world’s scientists and businessmen that Lithuania is more than capable of creating innovations in this field and that we are constantly pushing forward with progress.
    Marius: Participation in this competition shows to the world that Lithuania is an advanced country. We are able and ready to participate alongside some of the best universities in the world. We are showing them our accomplishments, and that we are not a stereotypical Eastern-European country; we have a lot of potential. The best part is when we go to the USA and talk about our university and the biotechnology in Lithuania people are always curious about Lithuania. They are so happy, encouraging, and supportive of our participation because we are the first country from our region to do so. They told us we must participate next year as well.
    What do you believe would motivate more life science students not only Lithuania but Estonia, and Latvia as well, to participate in more international life science competitions?
    Marius: We are currently the only Baltic state that participates in the iGEM competition but we are planning to invite Latvia and Estonia and hope they will join us next year. I think a motivating factor for Latvia and Estonia to participate is the chance to show the world the countries’ potentials in the life sciences field. The competition is an opportunity for Latvia and Estonia to be internationally recognized as innovative, advanced countries, much like how Lithuania is being recognized.
    Rugile: Personally what motivated me to participate in this competition is the amount of intellectual freedom it allows. As a student you are constantly being told what to do by your professors and supervisors, participating in this competition allows you to come up with a problem and think of ways to solve it on your own. It is fascinating and exciting that we can choose what to research and what to create. Also, this project is a chance to obtain a very useful experience because it combines both academic and real world aspects. It incorporates human practices, society, and is more than just about experiments in the lab. It also teaches you how to turn your ideas into commercial products; it is sort of like a startup school. This can be very useful and exciting for students and is definitely a motivating factor.
    Professor Juozas Rimantas Lazutka recently stated at Vilnius University that breakthroughs in biotechnology rely mostly on young minds. How do you see this to be true? How do you think this statement is relevant in Lithuania?
    Rugile: Breakthroughs can come from both young scientists and ones who have much more experience. Young scientists are just more likely to think outside the box and have many creative ideas. I think our generation’s trend is concerned with benefitting the world; of leaving it a better place than when we came. Also, this is such an enormous field full of endless discoveries and we constantly need more students and people working in the life sciences field.
    Marius: I think also nowadays there are more opportunities for life science students in Lithuania. Today it is possible for students to study abroad in Harvard or any other of the world’s top universities and collect knowledge from all around the world to bring back into Lithuania. This is important and one of the reasons why young scientists today are an important source of innovation in Lithuania’s life sciences industry.