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Student team hopes to heal skin with squid protein

Eleven ambitious Leiden students hope to heal burns with a special substance from squid teeth. They are taking part in the international iGEM competition. They need to raise almost 10,000 euros to fund their project this summer.

International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) is a competition in which student teams from all around the world use synthethic biology to solve an issue facing the world. The Leiden team of 11 science students will spend this summer looking at a protein that has recently been discovered in the sucker ring teeth of the Humboldt squid: suckerin. The protein makes these teeth, which the squid uses to capture its prey, strong and flexible. The students want to use it to repair damaged skin.

Strong and flexible

Suckerin is a very versatile biomaterial. ‘The protein consists of two modules: one is responsible for flexibility and the other for strength,’ says Jo-Anne Verschoor, who is studying for a master’s degree in Biology. ‘You can therefore make it as strong as you want: as strong as bone, for instance, or more flexible, like skin.’ Suckerin can also take different shapes, she explains. ‘If you heat it, it resembles a thin layer of plastic. If you add water, it becomes a kind of gel.’

Gel or plaster

The team is focusing on skin that can no longer heal properly, because of burns, for instance. ‘We want to find out if suckerin can be used to make a plaster or gel that stimulates wound healing,’ says Jo-Anne. ‘We want to add antimicrobial substances to the gel, so that we can prevent infection. That is very important to healing burns.’

An important aspect of the project is to get bacteria to produce large quantities of suckerin. ‘Obviously, we don’t want to use squid to produce it,’ says Maarten Lubbers, who is studying for a bachelor’s degree in Biology. ‘We are therefore obtaining the genetic code of the protein from a research group in Singapore. We will then make a further three variants. We want to see which one works best, or whether we need a combination of the three.’

Crowdfunding

The students are hard at work preparing for the project. They are visiting businesses and talking to biotechnologists and burn specialists. They also hope to raise 9,800 euros in a crowdfunding campaign. They need a lot of materials and equipment for the lab, such as bioreactors: large vessels that will increase the production of the protein. ‘We also want to use the campaign to involve people at an early stage of our research,’ says Lubbers. ‘People who contribute will be given a virtual lab tour or a comic book, for instance.’

We are the future

The students will do the lab work this summer. They will present their research in Boston at the end of October, where they will battle it out with 314 other student teams. It will be hard work, say Jo-Anne and Maarten, but they are really looking forward to it. ‘I always wanted to combine zoology with biotechnology,’ says Maarten. ‘iGEM is a great way to do this.’

Jo-Anne adds: ‘We are the future, and this will show that we really can mean something to science and society.’

Accolades

The iGEM students have already been showered with accolades. Opentrons, a company that makes robots for biological research, has called their project one of the top 10 most-promising iGEM projects. Furthermore, Leiden iGEM’s peers at the Netherlands Biology Conference judged their poster to be the best in terms of both the project itself and the clear way in which it was explained. And the project has not gone unnoticed at the Leiden Bio Science Park: the Entrepreneurs Association there is sponsoring the students with an entrepreneurship grant.

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