Throughout the development of our project, we have been actively reaching out to different parties to hear their opinions. These communications helped us greatly, both in refining our design and in understanding its relationship with the society.
Initial stage: assessing our idea
During the preliminary stages of our project, we had been mostly relying on reviews and research papers to work out our design. Therefore, in order to update our knowledge on the current trends in IBD research and treatment, and to improve our overall understanding of IBD, we attended the ChinaGut Festival, the biggest conference focusing on intestinal diseases in China.
Fig.1 THU iGEMers in the ChinaGut Festival.
Fig.2 THU iGEMers communicating with different sicentists.
Video: THU iGEMers' ChinaGut Festival vlog.
There, we heard many inspiring reports given by top researchers from different perspectives. Specifically, we learned that gut microecology is now widely considered as vital to human health, and that bile acid metabolism plays an important role in its regulation. This was quite encouraging for us, as it confirmed that we had been on the right track. Indeed, our poster demonstrating our initial design received much approval from several specialists.
An unexpected gain from the ChinaGut Festival was that we came upon a new cell-coating technique that can protect bacteria cells in various harsh environments, and is especially promising in the delivery of orally-administered probiotics. Later, we encorporated this novel strategy into our design.
To see whether our project can meet the actual needs in clinical practice, we also contacted several physicians specializing in IBD treatment. We confirmed with Dr. Yue Li from Beijing Union Medical College Hospital that although nowadays a number of measures can be taken to ameliorate symptoms of IBD, still there is no clinical intervention for rebalancing bile acid metabolism, and that related approaches would be novel and welcomed.
Fig.3 Online meeting with Dr. Yue Li.
Finally, as IBD patients are of course among our most important stakeholders, we got into contact with Jie Zhao, a volunteer from China Crohn's & Colitis Foundation (CCCF), who had also been afflicted by IBD herself. She expressed great interest in our project, and encouraged us to bring more public attention to IBD.
Specifications: deciding on animal experiments
As we moved on to detailed experiment designs, we encountered a problem in the proof-of-concept experiments. Ideally, experiments should be done to demonstrate that our engineered bacteria can actually improve the intestinal environment and alleviate symptoms caused by IBD. In actual research, this is often done by in vivo tests on animal models. However, since animal experiments involve numerous concerns about animal welfare and research ethnics, we wondered if we can conduct our proof-of-concept experiments on organoids.
Therefore, we consulted Professor Wei Wu, an expert in organoid, to see if our idea is practicable. However, Professor Wu informed us that organoid systems construction was too expensive and difficult for undergraduate students, and it would be very hard to obtain clear,reliable results. He suggested that we consider animal experiments instead.
Fig.4 We were consulting Pro. Wei Wu.
Under his recommendation, we contacted Professor Wang who had previously built in vitro colitis models. She strongly agreed with Professor Wu, saying that animal experiment would be the most simple and convincing way. In the end, we decided that animal experiments were indeed necessary for our project. We consulted more specialists on experiment design, training and animal welfare for further specification of our animal experiments.
Fig.5 Meeting with Pro. Xia Wang.
Future prospects: envisioning implementation
Since we envisioned our project to be implemented as manufactured probiotics, we did some extra research on the probiotics industry, including current production techniques and legal regulations. We first visited Oriental Yeekang, a company dedicated to fecal microbiota transplantations, and also ZHONGKE-JIAYI, a company that produces powdered probiotics, as their products bore many similarities to what we'd like to make. We learned from them the commen forms of probitic medicine, and how these can be put into actual manufacturing. We also learned much about the statas quo of probiotics business in China. In addition, we discussed with their R&D staff about how synthetic biology can be better applied to manufacturing.
Fig.6 We were talking during our visit to the factory.
On the other hand, to learn more about the legal regulations that we should abide by in developing a probiotic product, we visited Novozymes, a leading international incorporation in this field. There, we got a detailed introduction of how a new probiotics can come all the way from the lab to the market.
Fig.7 We were visiting Novozymes' lab.
Fig.8 A photo of us with the head of the company's business.