Last month the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology synthetic biology team took off for theInternational Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, held in Paris. The students in the group were engineering special bacteria that will produce an industrial substance that deters hair loss, and which can be added to regular shampoos and other haircare products.

This year, the iGEM team from the Technion included 12 students from across the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering, the Henry and Marilyn Taub Faculty of Computer Science, the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering, and the Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine. The team recently received a special Impact grant given to only a small number of the teams participating in the global competition based on their projected benefits to humanity.

Every year, the team chooses an innovative project in the field of synthetic biology, and this year, it involves substances that inhibit hair loss caused by chemotherapy. One of the most common cancer treatments, chemotherapy causes damage to healthy, living tissues and oftentimes hair loss, among other severe side effects.

The Technion team set to compete in iGEM worked on proving the feasibility of lab production of Decursin, a hair loss deterrent, and its possible incorporation into preparations including shampoo, cream, and more. Decursin is a major component of Angelica gigas Nakai (AGN) root extract. It has many beneficial properties including the abilities to suppress inflammation, repress cancer, and prevent apoptosis – or programmed cell death, which includes hair cells.

Today, the molecule is produced from a rare seasonal flower grown in Korea in an expensive and inefficient process. The student team is engineering bacteria that will produce Decursin industrially.

The prestigious iGEM competition was founded in 2004 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to give students, mainly undergraduates, a chance to experience scientific and applied research in the world of synthetic biology. Since its inception, the competition has been held in Boston. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held online for the past two years.

This year, more than 300 teams from around the world will participate in the competition, including three Israeli teams – one from the Technion, one from Tel Aviv University, and one from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The first Israeli iGEM team was established at the Technion in 2012 under the guidance of Professor Roee Amit, a faculty member in the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering. He guides the Technion team to this day.

Over the years, teams from the Technion have won multiple gold medals in the competition. But according to Prof. Amit, “Beyond participation and winning, it is important to understand that some of the developments by the Technion teams have already been turned into applied and commercial tracks and have a real impact in the world. One of the most prominent examples is Koracell, which was founded on the basis of the technology developed by our students in preparation for a competition iGEM ​​in 2019. The group developed an innovative technology for the production of honey without bees using a genetically engineered bacterium. This technology allows the honey’s texture and taste to be precisely designed, and it is also a platform for simulating other natural metabolic processes.”