How we can lower the risk of antimicrobial resistance

November 1, 2019
iGEM team 2019

An ever-increasing proportion of bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Overuse or misuse of antibiotics causes bacteria to become immune to them. This is the reason why antibiotics might no longer work effectively against infections in human beings. A faster method for identifying which bacteria a patient is suffering from will lower the risk of antimicrobial resistance.  The iGEM student team has designed a system that can do this. The students are presenting it this week at the iGEM competition in Boston, America.

iGEM stands for international Genetically Engineered Machine, in a nutshell, everything that has to do with synthetic biology. This year, 377 teams from all over the world will take part in the competition. They have all been doing research on solutions to social problems from a biology angle. The Eindhoven team has focused on how we can lower the risk of antimicrobial resistance. A growing problem which currently there isn’t a solution for. “Developing a new antibiotic takes a lot of time, often decades. We don’t have that much time. That is why we have devised a detection system,” Yvonne van Mil explains.

Faster diagnosis

It takes two to three days at the moment to diagnose what kind of an infection a patient has. “During this time, a patient is often given several antibiotics before it is actually determined which one will best help,” says Van Mil. “During those two or three days, someone could become resistant to those other antibiotics that they have been given which they never needed in the first place.” After several years, people run the risk that not a single antibiotic might work anymore.

That’s why the students have developed a detection system that can diagnose someone’s infection within a few hours. “This means that doctors are able to prescribe the proper antibiotics immediately,” says the student. The system works with bacteriophages. “These are a kind of a virus for bacteria which have a high specificity. These phages bind to a specific bacterium and inject their DNA into it. The phages rapidly multiply in the bacterium, which eventually destroys the bacterium,” Van Mil explains.

A specially engineered protein then binds to the phage DNA. This sends out a light signal which it uses to determines what type of bacteria a patient is carrying. “This is then measured in a sample taken from the patient, such as their urine,” she says. The system can test the sample for various bacteria in this way.

Determining the dose                                                      

At the same time, the students are also studying whether it is possible to use the same system to find out how widespread the infection is. This means that the dosage of the antibiotics can be adjusted accordingly. “Too much or not enough antibiotics do not always produce the intended results.”

Over the past six months, the students have focused primarily on producing the protein that is needed in this process. “The tests that we did have shown that it does work,” says Van Mil. “We have not designed a device for the system as yet. The university will continue studying this in the coming months.” Such a device has to be  thoroughly tested before it can be approved for use in hospitals. “That’s going to take a few years.”

Improper use of antibiotics

The problem of antimicrobial resistance is less acute in the Netherlands than in countries such as Greece or America. “In the Netherlands, you have to see a doctor first before you get antibiotics to take home with you. In some other countries, you can just buy them at a chemist”, explains Van Mil. “People often use antibiotics when they don’t need them at all. This is how the bacteria become resistant much faster.”

Towards victory

They’re not sure yet whether their idea will deliver the students a victory in Boston. “The competition is very diverse, so it’s really difficult to compare the projects with each other,” she says. That’s why there are different categories within the competition. The Eindhoven team is taking part in the Diagnostics category. In addition to the various themes, there are also several levels. For example, there is a separate category for secondary school students. Then there are two categories for university students. These are divided into age groups – above and below the age of 23.

Each category has its own award. Aside from that, students can win an award for the separate parts of their project. For example, they may have created a model and a website. The teams can also win an award for their collaboration with other teams. “We set up a mini iGEM competition for the Dutch and Belgian teams,” says Van Mil. ” so that everyone had the opportunity to rehearse their presentation again before they face the real jury in America.” Ultimately, one team will be the overall winner. “We hope, of course, that we will be the ones standing on that stage. Although we would be very happy if we were nominated for any of the other prizes.”

University to take over the research

After the competition, the iGEM technology will be developed further at TU/e. “A professor has told us that he is interested in our technology,” says Van Mil. “One of our team members is probably going to take it on as a graduation project. We really like the fact that our idea has so much potential that the university wants to continue working on it.”

Would you like to follow iGEM’ s presentation in America? Check out their Facebook page at 3 pm on Saturday the 2nd of November. Would you like to know more about this technology? Check out iGEM’s extensive website here.

Source: Innovation Origins