University College Cork (UCC)'s “Limited Lactis” team scored gold at the prestigious International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Jamboree held recently in Boston. More than 600 teams from the top universities in the world, including MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge and Oxford took part in the competition which is held up as the gold standard for “research-led education”.

The Cork team, the only Irish entrants in the competition, used the bacterium Lactococcus lactis, a generally recognised as safe (GRAS) bacterium, commonly used in food production, to develop a potential new vaccine against Leishmaniasis, a neglected tropical disease which is increasing in geographical distribution, and also cancer.

Synthetic Biology is a burgeoning approach to designing and making novel products from biology, which is revolutionising what is possible in tackling world needs in health, energy, food and beyond. Leishmaniasis affects some of the poorest people on earth, and is associated with malnutrition, population displacement, poor housing, a weak immune system and lack of financial resources. An estimated 900 000–1.3 million new cases and 20 000-30 000 deaths occur annually. Leishmaniasis is linked to environmental changes such as deforestation, building of dams, irrigation schemes, and urbanization.

The UCC team worked voluntarily, both in the laboratory and beyond, engaging with people in disease-affected regions such as Honduras, where diseases like Leishmaniasis is a serious problem. Team instructor, Yensi Flores, from Honduras and a PhD candidate at the Cork Cancer Research Centre and SFI Research Centre APC Microbiome Institute, travelled to Honduras to gain an insight into the realities of developing a suitable treatment for Leishmaniasis. She connected the team with various stakeholders on the ground. The team also engaged in significant outreach work, teaching Cork school pupils about synthetic biology and charity fundraising activities.

The UCC team comprised of students from UCC Pharmacy, Medicine, Genetics, and BioMedical Science, was hosted by the SFI Research Centre APC Microbiome Institute, Cork Cancer Research Centre and the School of Biochemistry and received financial support from the SFI Research Centre APC Microbiome Institute, Breakthrough Cancer Research, UCC College of Medicine & Health, Fyffes, the EU, Janssen and Eli Lilly.

“I was blown away with how much was achieved in such a short time by undergraduate students, and how sophisticated the resulting technology is, all due to the enthusiasm of the students and the power of Synthetic Biology.”Mark Tangney PhD MBA, Cork Cancer Research Centre & APC Microbiome Institute, UCC.