During our journey towards MIKROSKIN, our project's aims and definitions have changed. We owe these changes to the feedback we have gotten both from experts and the public. Before choosing our project, we asked the public for problems they thought we could solve with synthetic biology, through the 'Make your Impact' survey. We then analysed the problems, and thought of possible solutions. Throughout this brainstorming process we got in contact with experts in respective fields, who were invited to the panel discussion where we chose our project: MIKROSKIN.
Figure 1: During our panel discussion, many previous members of iGEM Stockholm, as well as some of our advisors came to help us decide what we would work on over the summer.
With a background in glycoscience, associate professor Lauren McKee, who you can read more about, alongside the others noted on this page in Attributions helped us develop our project idea, which at this point in time entailed:
- Performing sequencing studies on healthy and unhealthy microbiota by skin samples of voluntary participants
- Creating an aptamer-based rapid test to detect imbalances in skin microbiota, targeting strains of S. aureus and C. acnes
- Creating a prebiotic
Project Initiation and Development
When initiating our project, we focused on the creation of our rapid test. The first step in the process was deciding on whether we wanted the rapid test to be aptamer or affibody based. Upon discussions with John Loflbom, expert on protein engineering technology, and Johan Nilvebrant, who has an extensive background in working with affibodies, the decision was made to focus on aptamers.
For input on our protocols, we contacted SELEX expert Dimitri. For feedback on C. acnes cultivation we contacted Andrew McDowell, group leader at the Ulster University of Belfast. His experience in culturing various different strains of C. acnes greatly helped us out. Furthermore, we contacted PhD student Darko Mitrovic, who introduced us to the potential uses of dry-lab operations, as well as the molecular dynamics softwares AMBERTools and GROMACS. Alexander Lyubartsev informed us on the impact of force fields on aptamers.
When approaching the idea of sequencing the microbiota of volunteers, we noticed our lack of knowledge about the ethical implications. What responsibility do we have when it comes to informing the participants on the state of their microbiota? How do we justify storing their personal data? To answer these questions, we contacted SynthEthics - an initiative founded by previous iGEM teams, specialising in ethics regarding synthetic biology. During our SynthEtics workshop we got specific feedback on how to tackle the ethical issues within our project. We ultimately decided against sequencing skin microbiota, since the ethical implications of collecting and storing personal data surpassed the value this would bring to our project. However, since the implementation of our product entails handling skin samples, we needed to address this. We contacted Fredrik Blix, Associate professor in Cybersecurity with 25 years of experience in data protection (GDPR). Fredrik taught us the basics about GDPR and business planning in our 'From iGEM to Entrepreneur' workshop and recommended we avoid handling personal data altogether. The contact with Blanka Novak and Erik Hartman from Synthetics and our contact with Fredrik Blix led to the formulation of our ethics workplan.
During the project initiation we wanted to make sure there was a need for our product. We also wanted to get a better understanding of how skin conditions affect the individual. That is why we conducted the 'Skin Microbiota survey'. From the answers from the 154 respondents, we learned that close to 80% experience skin problems, most of them struggling with acne. For 30% of respondents, the state of their skin leads to insecurity. We also learnt that 99% were open to learning if the state of their skin was linked to their skin microbiota, and that 98% were open to using a rapid test for this purpose. Multiple respondents stressed the importance of the rapid test being linked to a solution to their skin problem. This was eye-opening for us and made us consider possible applications of MIKROSKIN more closely. Our main focus was now providing a tool for dermatologists with which they could properly treat acne and atopic dermatitis - by monitoring antibiotic treatment of it or deciding against antibiotics and recommending pre- or probiotics if no imbalance in disease-causing bacteria was shown.
To confirm that our focus on helping dermatologists treat acne was right, we contacted dermatologist and co-founder of the Swedish dermatology clinic 'Kirurgiskt hudcenter' Frida Bjornro, MD. In our conversations with Frida we learned more about the treatment of acne and it became clear that the implementation part of our project needed a focus shift - we needed to think broader. Instead of focusing on one skin condition we formulated the idea of a customisable high throughput test. Additionally, we shifted the focus in our business plan from dermatologists as our main customers, to researchers.
We presented our idea to Prof. and Dermatologist Lajos Kemeny and Dr. Szabo Kornelia of the Dermatological Research Group at University Of Szeged, who saw value in using MIKROSKIN in their own research. They assured us that our product could help establish the relationship between C. acnes and acne, as well as other skin bacteria and respective conditions. They also saw the possibility of a future clinical application in recommending pre- or probiotic treatment to atopic dermatitis patients, and stated that MIKROSKIN could be used to see how different topical skin products impact the colonisation of S. aureus.
While listening to the public taught us that they would like to know the potential cause of their skin problems, listening to experts in the field taught us that there is a knowledge gap that needs to be bridged first. These conversations shifted the entrepreneurial course of our project and led to the formulation of our business plan and our prototype.