UO undergrads working to develop a concussion biosensor

A team of UO undergraduates has a new vision for concussion diagnosis: Rather than wait for the results of a CT scan, a quick sample of an athlete’s blood, saliva or sweat could reveal a possible brain injury right from the sidelines of a football game.

A simple test like that could help screen out athletes who shouldn’t return to play after a knock on the head, by looking for the presence of proteins that are released by the brain in response to injury.

Thirteen students are working hard to turn that vision into reality, and they’re taking their research project to the international stage this fall. The group is UO’s first foray into a student research competition called iGEM, short for International Genetically Engineered Machine. During a three-day event in Paris, they’ll go up against teams of students from around the world, all of which have developed some kind of new technology using synthetic biology.

“I really loved the idea of being able to do impactful research, as an undergrad and especially as a first-year student,” said team member Oliver Loreto, now a rising sophomore majoring in biology and data science.

The team is based in the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, and they use lab space provided by bioengineering professor Calin Plesa. Anissa Benabbas, a graduate student in the Plesa Lab who provides instruction and mentorship to the team, participated in iGEM herself when she was in college.

“I already had an idea of the great benefit a team like this could bring to UO students and the greater community,” she said. “And with the Knight Campus, where we have this burgeoning program providing significant resources and new talent, I thought this could be an excellent place to have the UO’s first iGEM team.”

Since launching in May, the group has plunged into planning and developing their project. They landed on the idea of a concussion biosensor because of its potential impact for the community around them.

“Concussions tend to be underreported, and sometimes athletes themselves don't even know they have one,” said Carmen Resnick, a rising senior biochemistry major and the team’s student leader. “Complications really start to arise when you have multiple concussions throughout your career, so it'd be very helpful to be able to sense concussions when they first occur.”

CT scans offer an accurate concussion diagnosis, but they require an athlete to be injured enough to warrant a trip to the hospital.

Athletes sometimes downplay the severity of their injuries to avoid getting pulled from play, noted Theo Seah, a rising senior and the team’s operational lead. And the typical quick screening after a head injury — checking eye pupil size or someone’s ability to recall the date — is somewhat subjective. It can miss mild concussions that can still have far-reaching consequences.

The UO team envisions a different approach: measuring biomarkers, or proteins released by the brain after injury that could reveal that damage has occurred.

A test already on the market that takes this approach requires relatively large volume of blood. Instead, the UO team wants to create something that uses just a small amount of blood, saliva or sweat to give a quick readout. Such a tool could be deployed at the sidelines of a sports game or in a school nurse’s office.

With less than six months to get their idea ready for competition, UO’s iGEM team is drawing on the strengths of all its members to make quick progress. Members encompass all class years and a variety of science majors.

“One thing that really sets iGEM apart from other research opportunities for that undergraduates is that iGEM gives students the opportunity to develop projects in a collaborative team environment,” Benabbas said.

Some students are sifting through scientific papers to get intel on which proteins might best reveal a concussion, digging deep into methods sections and supplemental data. Others are looking for molecules that could bind to those proteins, so that the protein can be detected if it is present in a sample. They’re engineering E. coli bacteria to produce those binding molecules.

In the team’s design, the binding molecules will be split into two inactive pieces. When both pieces bind to the same protein, they’ll recombine and change color, revealing the target protein’s presence. The team hopes to identify several promising binder-biomarker pairs, then combine them into a test that can pick up on several different concussion-related biomarkers at the same time.

Meanwhile, another part of the team using computer software to run calculations that predict the feasibility of different design options. That way, even if the lab work doesn’t yield concrete results by the competition in October, they’ll have something to show the judges.

For team members, the iGEM experience is about more than just the competition. It’s also an opportunity to learn firsthand about bioengineering research and get experience developing a research project from the ground up.

“We’re putting together a synthetic biology project with people who have never studied synthetic biology, and I think the learning curve there has been pretty exponential,” said Resnick, who is also a student researcher in Plesa’s lab. “It’s cool to see people picking up on all these skills quickly.”

They benefit from proximity to Knight Campus researchers, who have provided guidance and training on different techniques. (The team is co-mentored by Plesa and computational biochemist Parisa Hosseinzadeh.) And they’re digitally connected, too, swapping tips and updates in a Slack group.

“It’s really humbling,” said Seah, a student researcher in Robert Guldberg’s lab at the Knight Campus who is familiar with reading scientific papers and working in a lab. But still, she said, she and her teammates have had to “learn a new language” to work on the iGEM team’s synthetic biology research.

The team hopes to raise enough money to send all their members to the iGEM Jamboree in Paris in October. At the Jamboree, the team will present its work to judges and other teams and connect with the international research community.

The Knight Campus has provided funding to support travel for a core group of five individuals. The team has been awarded an iGEM impact grant, which gives funding to particularly promising projects. And they’ve set up a DuckFunder page so members of the community can chip in.

“I’m really excited to meet a bunch of people who are in the sciences, from different universities and different backgrounds, and learn from them,” Seah said. 

Regardless of the competition results, though, the students hope their research will make a difference.  

“My goal is to see all this research and planning that we've done actually get off the ground,” Resnick said, meaning her team develops a working biosensor or that other researchers can build on their work in the future. “This is big thinking, but I think the project that we've designed could be monumental in the field of concussion diagnostics. It would be really cool to be able to say that everything that we've done the past two months has paid off.”

By Laurel Hamers, University Communications