Inaugural Special Programme in Science Team wins Silver Medal at Prestigious International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) 2015 Giant Jamboree


The Faculty of Science sent an inaugural team, comprising nine students from the Special Programme in Science (SPS), to compete in this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition held in Boston, Massachusetts from 24 to 28 September. The SPS team did the Faculty proud at the Giant Jamboree, winning a Silver Medal.


The iGEM competition is an annual world-wide event for high school, undergraduate and post-graduate students interested in the new and exciting field of synthetic biology. It is organised by the iGEM Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to education in the advancement of synthetic biology and innovative biologically-engineered systems that solve real-world challenges.


Since its inception in 2003, iGEM has grown exponentially. From five teams in 2004 to 13 teams in 2005, the competition this year garnered participation from 280 teams, reaching more than 30 countries. Participants included top universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of Cambridge.


Prior to the competition, the SPS students went through the Integrated Science Curriculum launched in 2011. One of the modules SP2174 The Cell was developed partly to groom SPS students for the competition. The competition is especially suited for SPS students, given the interdisciplinary nature of the SPS programme.


For the competition, the SPS team modified E. coli bacteria to develop a targeted delivery system of anti-cancer drugs directly to cancerous cells in the tumour core. Conventional chemotherapeutic cancer therapies often lead to unwanted off-target effects. Bacteria are considered promising candidates for drug delivery. Bacteria strains like E.coli can survive in aerobic and anaerobic environments, and they can therefore be utilised to express therapeutic genes or drugs to the tumour.


From May to August, the team worked on modifying and equipping the bacteria with the necessary mechanisms to perform its task. When the bacteria were tested in an anaerobic environment, they were able to enter tumour cells, where they could deliver drugs.


The team also met up with other regional participants at the conference, undertook community outreach activities such as a teaching workshop outside the lab ( and documented their efforts in their wiki website.


More than 2,700 participants travelled to Boston to present their work, which saw projects ranging from non-toxic insect repellent to multi-purpose space moss.


The members of the SPS iGEM 2015 team were Year Four students TAN Yi Han; YEO Xin Yi; Adrian TAN Hong Ji; NGUYEN Duy; HEE Yan Ting; Clarice HONG Kit Yee; Kenneth LIM Kun Ming; and Year Three students WONG Chi Yan and Soong Yun Ting. The SPS team members were engaged in research activities spanning diverse fields, ranging from bioinformatics to pharmacology and neuroscience.


The team was supervised by Dr Leslie GAPTER, SPS lecturer and coordinator of SP2174 The Cell module; Prof Linda J KENNEY, Principal Investigator at Mechanobiology Institute (MBI); Dr DESAI Stuti Kaivalya, Research Fellow at MBI; and Mr Ives LIM Yubin, SPS graduate mentor.


Tan Yi Han, Year Four major in Life Sciences and team leader, said, “The iGEM Competition was a memorable and unique learning experience. We worked as a team to conduct research. At the conference, we got to interact with students from all over the world. There were many new insights into research-based applications, such as aptamers! The SPS curriculum prepared us well for the competition, training us in literature survey, presentation and research.”


Yan Ting, Year Four Life Sciences major, said, “I had the opportunity to meet people with similar passion in the sciences from all over the world. It was an eye opener to see so many unique and revolutionary ideas developed from their projects. The enriching experience was worth it.”


Dr Desai Stuti Kaivalya, MBI Research Fellow said, “The SPS iGEM students are highly driven, inquisitive and knowledgeable. They did full justice to the rigour required of an intense competition like iGEM. This can be attributed to their solid SPS training.”


The team with their supervisor Dr Desai Stuti Kaivalya by their poster

Tackling questions during the Q&A segment of their presentation (Photo credit: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight)

Some of the team members with Mr Randy Rettberg, Founder and President, iGEM Foundation