An interdisciplinary team of undergraduates, led by Dr Shelley Wickham, has won first place in an international biomolecular design competition for its nanodevice for the treatment of cardiovascular disease.
The 2019 University of Sydney team, the FilterPhytes, travelled to San Francisco this month to compete in the international jamboree in San Francisco, USA.
BioMod encourages teams of undergraduates from around the world to work together to build “the coolest stuff using the molecules of life”. For the third consecutive year, University of Sydney students have worked together to design, build and test a novel nanodevice with potential applications for improving human health.
In previous years, the team has explored devices for rapid viral detection and the treatment of antimicrobial infections. This year the focus was on cardiovascular disease.
“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, killing more people than cancer or road accidents every year,” said team member Anh Tu Lam, a Biomedical Engineering and Medical Science student.
“Cardiovascular complications are often linked to excessive cholesterol build-up in blood vessels, so we decided to design a nanoscale filter, with a net-like mechanism inspired by ferns to selectively capture and filter excessive cholesterol from the bloodstream.”
The students used a new technique called DNA origami to build their prototype nanofilter. Taking advantage of the folding ability of single strands of DNA enables scientists to program the biomolecule to fold into specific shapes or nanoscale tools. This work is a central focus of Dr Shelley Wickham’s lab in the University of Sydney Nano Institute and School of Chemistry.
Working with Dr Anna Waterhouse in the Faculty of Medicine and Health, Dr Shelley is using this technique for the Sydney Nano Grand Challenge in Nanorobotics for Health.
“Our DNA origami filter mimics the structure of fern leaves, which roll when they come into contact with harsh environments,” said team member Eloisa Perez Bennetts, a Bachelor of Advanced Science (Physics) student.
Team member Kavya Marthur, a Biomedical Engineering and Medical Science student, said: “Our nanofilter was designed to bind to arterial walls and capture unwanted forms of cholesterol flowing in the blood and then roll up to prevent it from escaping.”
By removing harmful cholesterol from the blood, the team aims to prevent the build-up of plaques inside the arteries that can cause blockages or restrict blood flow.
The team formed early this year when it started to design and model its nanofilter ready for synthesis and testing in the laboratory.
“It’s amazing to see what a group of exceptional undergraduates can do with the right resources and opportunity,” Dr Wickham said. “We’re so proud of what Team FilterPhytes has achieved this year.”
Science communication plays a significant role in the competition, with students building a public facing website detailing all of their research, producing an engaging video to explain their research and then presenting at the jamboree.
The FilterPhytes won first prize for both website and video and second prize for its presentation, leading to first place overall.
The team has learned even more than cutting-edge science and the ability to communicate complex ideas effectively.
Team member Oliver Hubbard, who is studying a Bachelor of Mechatronic Engineering (Space) and Science (Biology), said: “I’ve discovered that science is just as much about community as it is about data or theories. Within our team I’ve learnt that the combination of diverse skills is what enables true innovation to evolve.
Donna Win, a Biomedical Engineering Student, sums up the team’s feelings about taking home the top prize.
“Ending with a giant win in BioMod really paid off all the hard work our team had put in and I remember just smiling the entire time in awe,” she said.
For students interested in joining future University of Sydney BioMod teams, Andreas Orsmond, a Bachelor of Advanced Science and Doctor of Medicine student, has this advice: “Anyone with a passion for the molecules of life should get involved with BioMod. It doesn’t matter if you are coming at it from an engineering, biochemical or mathematical perspective – BioMod projects will allow you to explore the field you love.”
The 2019 USyd BIOMOD Team is: Oliver Hubbard, Donna Winn, Eloisa Perez Bennetts, Andreas Orsmond, Kavya Mathur and Anh Tu Lam.
Team mentors are: Dr Shelley Wickham (lead mentor), Minh Tri Luu, Natalie Surace, Jasleen Kaur Daljit Singh, Dr Anna Waterhouse, Dr Alice Motion and Dr Yu Heng Lau.
The University of Sydney BioMod team travelled to the United States with assistance from the NSW Department of Industry. Funding from within the University of Sydney came from Sydney Nano, Charles Perkins Centre, Faculty of Science, School of Chemistry, School of Life and Environmental Sciences and the School of Biomedical Engineering.