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A gem of a project

4 August 2017

Science student Courtney Pratt gives us the lowdown on a real-world project in DISCO: Designing Insulin to be Single Chain and Open-source for a cheap, easy and effective method to make essential diabetes medicine.

There are three major pharmaceutical companies that share 92% of the global insulin market.

“New insulin analogues are being produced and sold at a price that is not affordable, nor accessible, to a significant proportion of people with Type 1 Diabetes.”

We hope to find an easy, cheap and effective way to produce and purify insulin analogues so that our methods can be used in developing countries…
iGEM participant Courtney Pratt
Courtney Pratt

Third year Science student and iGEM team member, Courtney Pratt.  

“Old insulins, including the natural insulin that non-diabetics are able to produce on their own, are no longer being produced or sold. This means that the only options available are these new, expensive drugs.

“Prices are increasing for the consumer despite the fact that these new drugs are actually costing less to fabricate through various optimisation techniques.

“This means these pharmaceutical companies are increasing their margins from both ends, at the expense of the customer.”

That’s where this year’s undergraduate iGEM team comes in. Their aim is to create an open-source, thermostable insulin that can be mass produced and sold at a cost-effective price to help treat those unable to afford these over-priced therapies. Their work is part of a larger global effort known as the Open Insulin Project, which includes a node here in Sydney at the ‘biohacker’ community lab Biofoundry.

“We hope to find an easy, cheap and effective way to produce and purify insulin analogues so that our methods can be used in developing countries, particularly where physical accessibility is also an issue,” said iGEM team member and science student Courtney Pratt.

It sounds serious, but the students are also in it for fun. Their project is entitled DISCO: Designing Insulin to be Single Chain and Open-source.

iGEM is the international Genetically Engineered Machine - an annual synthetic biology competition where students build genetically engineered organisms that will ultimately contribute positively to their own community and the world.

“For our project to be successful, we must understand the real-world implications. We are learning from people directly impacted by the current regime – the diabetic community from different parts of the world – to gauge what the best outcomes of our work can be for them,” Courtney said.  

The project is sophisticated and complicated, but it facilitates an interdisciplinary approach to a real-world problem in a structured, effective way.

Courtney Pratt (left) and Ruby Dawes (right) pipetting samples in the lab.

Courtney Pratt (left) and iGEM team mate Ruby Dawes (right) in their lab.  

“A major part of the competition is synthetically engineering bacteria so it does what we need it to do in producing our insulin. Our tasks include expressing and purifying human insulin, an insulin analogue, and our own modified insulin from two types of bacteria. This requires an extensive understanding of microbiology, molecular biology and biochemistry, and in our team, we each have at least one of these areas of understanding that we can bring to the table.

“We also have to design and run our own wiki page to display our results and progress over the next six months, which requires a few of us to learn how to code.”

This year the team is being supervised by Dr Nicholas Coleman from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. There are eight undergraduate students in this multidisciplinary team with a range of skills to support the work.

“Most of our team members are undertaking a science degree and our majors are very diverse.”

Take a breath. They have applied mathematics; biochemistry; biotechnology; immunobiology; microbiology; statistics and molecular biology; and genetics to draw on. In addition to the science expertise, the team has students studying medical science, law and commerce.

Courtney is currently in her third and final year of a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) majoring in statistics and microbiology.

She heard about the competition during a lecture and knew she had to apply.

“The project brought together so many aspects of my prior studies. Units in pharmacology and immunology, molecular biology and genetics equipped me with key skills that I’m using as our project unfolds.

“This unit was a unique opportunity to apply knowledge learnt in my degree to a practical problem, which is unlike all other units I've come across so far.”

Courtney is hoping for a career that presents her with problems that she can solve in a team environment.

“Problem solving is the reason I chose to do a science degree, and it’s why I wanted to be in the iGEM team so much.

She said, “I'm not going to lie, a science degree is an incredibly time intensive and demanding degree. It takes a lot to get through it, but doing activities outside of lectures and practicals at university is so important to keep you sane more than anything! University shouldn't feel like work all of the time and social activities are a great way to reenergise and revitalise yourself.

“The most interesting thing about my degree is that I can make it what I want it to be and choose my subjects. I even elected to do a unit in the history of art in first year.

“Each person has a different experience and a different range of knowledge by the end of the same degree,” she said.

Courtney’s pearl of wisdom for students considering a science course is: “Don't pigeon hole yourself. Just because you're doing a science degree doesn't mean you can't do things that aren't strictly 'sciencey'.”

And this applies for all degrees.

“Get out of your degree's stereotype. Go for an internship at a bank, or do theatre productions on the weekend. There are so many opportunities out there, so make sure you look out for them. Be open to finding new opportunities and jump right into them whenever you can - especially when they're different to what you're studying.”

In November, the iGEM team will travel to Boston, USA to showcase their work under the bright disco lights of the iGEM Giant Jamboree.