Students begin project to make E. coli detect colon cancer

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A team of BYU students is developing a new way to detect colon cancer — using E. coli to sound the alarm.

It’s reputation may lack an element of glamor, but as a normal member of humans intestinal flora — the bacteria that live within the intestine and aid with digestions — E. coli could be the perfect candidate for early colon cancer detection, according to Julianne Grose, the research team’s adviser and an assistant professor of microbiology and molecular biology at BYU.

The nine-member team modified normal E. coli by moving genes from other organisms into the E. coli’s DNA, causing it to react to the presence of free radicals and increased temperature, early indicators of colon cancer. When both signs are detected, the E. coli reacts either by turning a florescent blue-green color or by emitting a chemical signal that could be measured by a doctor.

The experiment is less than a year old, but the team bested similar projects from schools such as Harvard and Duke at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Regional Jamboree, qualifying them to participate in the International Genetically Engineered Machine World Championship Jamboree earlier this month. The team also took first place in medical bioengineering at an Institute of Biological Engineering conference.

“It was a very original idea — that’s why it made it so far,” Grose said, “But too new to have enough data [to place at the world championship].”

The idea to use E. coli to detect cancer was the result of a group effort, according to team member Julie Roberts, a junior from Salt Lake City, majoring in genetics and biotechnology. By making the E. coli sensitive to two early symptoms of colon cancer, the team realized they could create a sort of gate that would block the E. coli from reacting prematurely.

“We started out working on a way to prevent colon cancer,” Roberts said. “Eventually it evolved into this idea of having a gate and using the double input to detect something like colon cancer.”

If the modified bacteria prove effective, they could then be ingested by individuals and live harmlessly within the intestine, acting as an all-natural, automated cancer detection system. The project is still largely experimental, but team leader Matthew Biggs, a senior from Virginia, majoring in bioinformatics, said he could see the modified E. coli, or something similar, being used to detect cancer in humans in the near future.

“At this point, the E. coli isn’t capable of detecting cancer, but it’s the first step in that direction,” Biggs said. “Maybe in a few years, it will be real, it won’t be science fiction anymore.”

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