Local teens prepare for MIT competition

July 9, 2009 7:07:24 PM PDT
For most high school students, getting their minds around the basics of chemistry and biology is a terrific accomplishment. But for a small group of graduating seniors in the Bay Area, that is just the beginning. They are already working in the world of advanced bioscience.

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With a lab full of teenagers, this could be any afternoon chemistry class, but maybe a tad more sophisticated than most.

"What the kids are working on now is a project to try to reprogram cells to combat disease," explains QB3 researcher Wendell Lim, Ph.D.

If you don't remember working on that one in high school, don't feel too bad. A group of seniors from San Francisco's Lincoln High have been chosen for the prestigious iGEM competition which is usually reserved for college students.

Their team is spending the summer working at QB3, UCSF's Center for Quantitative Biosciences at Mission Bay. Their project involves tweaking the behavior of blood cells to make them behave something like biological robots.

The idea is to ultimately create cells that could be used to distribute drugs to specific parts of the body or to target tumors.

"That's kind of what synthetic biology is about," says Lincoln High graduate Cathy Liu. "You engineer these cells or living systems to function the way you want them to and maybe whatever you find out, you can apply it to something that will be beneficial."

Lim is overseeing the work, but says the students are completely responsible for generating the ideas and executing them.

"So we've asked them, how would you take a cell and how would you change the steering of that cell? How would you build a braking system? How would you build an accelerator for that cell? The kids have come up with a bunch of ideas and we're now trying them out experimentally," says Lim.

The students will take their bioengineered cells to the iGEM competition at MIT this fall. However, George Cachianese, their science instructor at Lincoln High, says the program is already having a profound effect back at their old high school.

"We started with one class of 30 students in 1995, and now we have 150 to 180 students taking bio-technology at Lincoln every year," says Cachianese. "Every single one of them wants to get onto the iGEM team, but only six or seven will."

The iGEM competition will take place from October 30 to November 2.

For more information, visit 2009.iGEM.org

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