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This summer, 12 MIT students are working on a project to create a treatment for endometriosis in the form of a genetic circuit. In late October, they will present the completed project to the over 300 teams from around the world participating in the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition at the Hynes Convention Center.
In the past, MIT iGEM teams have addressed Alzheimer's disease, cell differentiation and biodiesel production, but this year the team is bringing synthetic biology into the world of women's health. Endometriosis, the topic of the MIT iGEM team's research, is a condition characterized by extreme pelvic and abdominal pain, and it affects one in 10 women in the USA, including public figures like "Star Wars" actress, Daisy Ridley, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others.
Despite being almost commonplace, it's only relatively recently that endometriosis has become a focus of medical research. The pain is caused by cells from the uterine lining, called the endometrium, growing elsewhere in the body. These abnormal growths of endometrial cells can be large or small, and in the past, small growths could not be sensed. Back then, before endometriosis was a possible diagnosis, many women complaining of pain with no obvious or medically diagnosable cause would be carted away to asylums, labeled as "hysterical." Even today, although great strides are being made in understanding endometriosis on the molecular level, the treatment options for women with endometriosis are bleak. Pain medications and hormone therapy may minimize the symptoms of the disease, but they do nothing to get rid of the out-of-place endometrial cells causing the pain, and hormone therapy, in particular, can have noticeable and unpleasant side effects. The only options to actually remove the endometriosis are by undergoing surgery, either conservatively removing only the endometriosis cells (in minor cases) or by getting a hysterectomy, which is the removal of the uterus, cervix and ovaries (in extreme and recurrent cases).
After learning of this disheartening set of options for women with endometriosis, the MIT iGEM team set out to create an alternative. The team is working in the Weiss Lab at MIT, in the university's Synthetic Biology Center. Synthetic biology is a form of biological engineering that characterizes and uses standardized parts to make some product. These parts may be proteins, which are large molecules in a cell that perform some function like sense a hormone or read DNA, or RNA, a single-helix counterpart of DNA that brings messages around the cell, or they may be stretches of DNA code with which RNA or proteins can somehow interact. Once researchers begin putting these pieces together, the possibilities are endless, making synthetic biology a new and exciting field of biological research.
Over the next few months, the MIT iGEM team will create a genetic circuit built from these biological parts. The circuit will be made of DNA and protein components to sense conditions in the cell, while using Boolean logic, a system that relies on binary assumptions that some condition is either "on" or "off," analogous to 1 or 0, to create an output. The MIT iGEM team's goal is to create a circuit that will first recognize when it's in an endometriosis cell and then produce some output, like causing the cell to die, thus removing the endometriosis without requiring surgery. The circuit could also result in the endometriosis cell producing some chemical that can be sensed through a blood or urine test, as a noninvasive and accurate alternative to the only current sure way to diagnose endometriosis: laparoscopy.