/ 29 October 2010

Wits students compete at MIT

Wits University students will become the first African team to participate in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (or iGEM) competition, run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), when they arrive in the United States next week.

The annual competition invites student teams, which must be multi-disciplinary, to design and build biological systems and operate them in living cells. The Wits students have come up with a machine they call “Lactoguard”, designed to detect the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection common in Africa.

Wits’s team consists of students from medical science, microbiology, chemical engineering, maths and philosophy. They will compete at MIT against 130 other entries from university teams across the globe, and the winner to be announced on November 5.

“The team came to the conclusion that HPV is a very urgent problem in Africa — especially among women, because if it is not detected it could lead to cervical cancer,” Professor Karl Rumbold told the Mail & Guardian Online. “The philosophy student is included to study how the machine would fit into society if being used in Africa as well as other ethical questions.”

Health sciences student Michelle Robinson said, “We are working with lactic acid bacteria that grow naturally and harmlessly on the human body and we are trying to modify these bacteria to detect and ultimately protect against cervical cancer.”

Explained Robinson: “Synthetic biology differs from biological fields in that it bases itself on engineering principles. Engineers view biology as a technology, with the ultimate goal of being able to design and build engineered biological systems that can fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food and maintain and enhance human health.

“Pieces of DNA are thus viewed as bits of ‘biological Lego’ that can be clipped together to make new biological systems with completely novel functions. Additionally these systems are created to be tightly controlled, with on- and off-switches and other regulatory functions.”

The team will leave for the US on November 4. Rumbold told the M&G that the university hopes other African universities will in time enter iGEM as well.