Skip Ribbon Commands Skip to main content
:

Fall 2010 - Team takes

Destination Purdue > Fall 2010 - Team takes

Team takes aim at tough brain tumors

By Ariel Case

Joseph Bretzmann

Photo by Ariel Case

Joseph Bretzmann, a junior chemical engineering major, is part of a team that is trying to find out if living organisms (such as bacteria) can help treat stubborn brain tumors.

Jessamine Osborne says the project she helped initiate has developed a "seek and destroy" strategy to attack the most stubborn and aggressive type of brain tumors in humans.

Osborne, who earned a bachelor's degree in biological sciences, leads seven undergraduate students who are a part of Purdue Agriculture's International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGem) team. The team is battling brain cell tumors that resist many types of chemotherapy.

"I am very dedicated to this project because I helped create it," Osborne said. "Things have really begun to take off in terms of excitement behind the project."

iGEM is an international competition for college students who use synthetic biology to solve problems. Synthetic biology looks for ways that living organisms, like bacteria, can solve real-world problems.

The student-led research teaches undergraduates how to conduct studies within a university setting and prepares them for graduate school. The iGEM team's faculty advisors include Jenna Rickus, Kari Clase and Craig Barcus.

"The resesarch is driven by the students," said Rickus, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. "Students from a wide range of majors are working together to solve a common problem."

iGEM is an international competition for college students who use synthetic biology to solve problems. Synthetic biology looks for ways that living organisms, like bacteria, can solve real-world problems.

The student-led research teaches undergraduates how to conduct studies within a university setting and prepares them for graduate school. The iGEM team's faculty advisors include Jenna Rickus, Kari Clase and Craig Barcus.

"The resesarch is driven by the students," said Rickus, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. "Students from a wide range of majors are working together to solve a common problem."

One of these undergraduates is Joseph Bretzmann, a junior chemical engineering major from Hartland, Wis. "It's exciting to be learning about the latest breakthroughs in synethetic biology and to conjecture at what might be possible in the future," he said.

Osborne and her team prepared for the competition by reading on the topic — a lot. Team members have been reading background material for nearly three straight months.

"It's messy and a struggle, but you learn a lot," said Osborne. "I dove into the fact that we are on the very edge of this huge technology that is about to take off."

Bretzmann focused his reading on finding evidence to support the team's ideas and better ways to accomplish the task of seeking and destroying these brain cancer cells. "There is a lot of information you have to take in," said Bretzmann. "I find it a little crazy, but exciting, how quickly technology is advancing," he said.

Bretzmann said it's rewarding and refreshing to learn outside the confines of the classroom and syllabus.

"It promotes a greater curiosity, interest, drive and creativity," he said. "(Team members) are fully in control of how they will go about discovering and truly learning the information, not just memorizing."

As a graduate student working on the project, Osborne will be able to gain a better foundation for getting the research started than she ever would have been able to as an undergraduate.

"You are working on projects that have meaning and application in the real world," Osborne said.

Based on the knowledge gained from the background reading, the team can then determine a strategic method of seeking these chemotherapy-resistant brain tumors to eventually destroy them.

"As none of the undergrads working on the project are experts, we are pretty much learning as we go along," Bretzmann said. "I'm motivated by the unknown, at least the unknown relative to my knowledge."

Bretzmann feels that the idea of coming across a discovery that will help improve the quality of others' lives is more than enough motivation to pursue the unknown.

"It's exciting to be learning about the latest breakthroughs in synthetic biology," he said. "The greatest appeal of the unknown is its potential."

Exploring the unknown allows for constant discovery and innovation. The project revolves around these two factors as the team is constantly learning new information to modify and improve their ideas.

There are a few goals that Bretzmann and the iGEM team hope to meet through their participation and work on this project.

"If we are eventually able to contribute a modular system to the field of synthetic biology, I'd be wearing a stupid grin on my face for at least four or five days straight — even if it was during winter," he said.