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CLS dominates international genetics competition

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The CLS team won a gold medal and four special prizes at the iGEM finals in the USA - an incredible achievement. They travelled to Boston after a year's hard work, entering the competition for only the second time.

The CLS team won a gold medal and four special prizes at the iGEM finals in the USA - an incredible achievement. They travelled to Boston after a year's hard work, entering the competition for only the second time.

Seven sixth formers, accompanied by Mr Zivanic and Dr Pattison presented their project to the international synthetic biology community. With 295 teams and hundreds of experts from every continent, this is truly the “molecular biology world cup,” in the words of Mr Zivanic. The City team’s project involved detecting lung cancer early with a genetic circuit that they created. Lung cancer accounts for 1.69 million deaths annually and usually presents late. By detecting tumours early, they are far easier to operate on, massively improving survival rates. The project could be developed into a cheap and effective diagnostic tool, with real-world applications.

The full team comprised of fifteen boys - including applicants for Biochemistry, Medicine, Maths and Computer Science. The combination of sciences encapsulates the ethos of iGEM and was integral to the team's success.

The team designed their own genetic parts to modify E. coli. However, they also extracted their parts from E. coli, so their final sensor would be usable outside the lab. However, the biology is just one aspect of the project. They also mathematically modelled their project to improve their design, spoke with leading doctors and other experts to create a clinical implementation strategy (integrated human practices) as well as creating software and hardware tools. These included a synthetic biology voice assistant that works on Amazon Alexa and Google assistant, an app to speed up the design process and a £4 portable fluorometer to measure the output of their test. To top it all off, they created their own website to document their entire project, available here. They worked throughout the holidays, and spent many long nights on the project, balancing the massive amount of work with their university applications and exams.

At the conference in Boston, the team presented their project to hundreds of others as well as to six judges. All six judges were exceedingly impressed by the team's work, not to mention the university students who were amazed that the work was done by a high school.

Most teams are awarded a medal - bronze, silver or gold - depending on the strength of their project. Competing against 40 other high schools from across the world, the team were delighted to receive a gold medal, reflecting their exceptional project. The medals criteria are the same for schools, undergraduate and postgraduate teams. The fact that university teams including Stanford, MIT, Harvard and Warwick won bronze medals puts City’s achievement into perspective.

CLS were nominated for seven special awards of the thirteen for high schools and won four - a stunning achievement. The team won best software, hardware, integrated human practices and composite genetic part. They were also nominated for best education and public engagement, mathematical model and website. No high school team was nominated for or won more awards. The entire team was enormously proud of their achievements having won awards in each section of their iGEM project, in addition to the gold medal in commendation for the entire project.

City were recognized by other synthetic biology giants, talking with the university team who won the overall grand prize. It was a fantastic trip to Boston, and the team were inspired by the amazing work done by university teams. The Vilnius team, who won the competition, revolutionised the synthetic biology world - achieving what biotech companies could not. Every day, the boys attended other teams’ presentations and in the evenings had the time to speak to other teams at their posters - engaging with cutting-edge research.

The CLS team represented the school on an international stage and left as iGEM giants. They are one of only three European high school teams. They were honoured to contribute to the scientific community through iGEM. In the words of Nicolas Schmelling, iGEM Ambassador:
“Everyone should have a good look at this wiki and the amazing team @CLSBigem behind it.”

Richard Brookes, Acting Head, commented: “This is a tremendous achievement for the boys and staff involved. This is unique amongst British schools and reflects the quality of thought and dedication that has gone into the project here at City of London School. We are incredibly proud of the team, and we look forward to further contributions to the progress of science from them in the future – they have certainly set the bar high for their successors in the School.”

No high school team was nominated for or won more awards.
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