iGEM as a Catalyst for Tacoma's BioTech Workforce

By David Hirschberg PhD and CEO RAIN 

A major emphasis of the Readiness Acceleration and Innovation Network (RAIN) is to educate and inspire our young scientists. This is the reason we sponsor an iGEM team every year. The International Genetically Engineered Machine organization inspires students and scientists to solve the world’s problems through Synthetic Biology.

Synthetic biology is a field that combines biology and engineering to create new targeted technologies that leverage the incredible power of the living systems around us. iIGEM hosts an annual competition to spread awareness of the versatility of synthetic biology and encourage the personal and scientific growth of students. The iGEM competition is a platform for students to explore their interest in science in a highly collaborative, fun, and exciting atmosphere. As Keshava Katti, a high school student from last year’s iGEM team, states “iGEM was a unique opportunity to explore my interest in bioengineering and support the local community. Participating in RAIN's arsenic biosensing project helped to develop my lab skills and technical expertise.”

 Dr Nguyen discussing the Ars Plasmid with 2018 iGEM team at a Science Saturday Session. 

Dr Nguyen discussing the Ars Plasmid with 2018 iGEM team at a Science Saturday Session. 

In 2017, RAIN had the opportunity to host a talented team of students from our local high schools and colleges, as well as cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. We called our team Cadets2Vets, a reference to our Army sponsorship and the involvement of cadets and veterans. Our team focused on the concern of arsenic in our environment and developed a biosensor to detect arsenic using a paper ticket. The joint effort by RAIN and the Department of Defense led to a successful showing at Giant Jamboree, a 5-day conference in Boston showcasing iGEM teams through oral and poster presentations. Cadets2Vets, a team competing in iGEM for the first time and with students who previously had limited hands-on lab experience, brought home a bronze medal!

The 2018 team is developing a new Biosensor to advance detection of arsenic through chromatophores. I look forward to updating you on our progress in the near future.

RAIN is committed to attracting companies to Tacoma by creating a talent pool of trained bhe BiotTech employees they desire. The students we are training on the iGEM team are such employees of the future and are these students committed to our futurethe betterment of Tacoma and the South Sound region.  

PathTracker: Utilization of technology to identify pathogens

By David Hirshberg, PhD

PathTracker is one of the projects I have been most proud of during my time at RAIN and University of Washington-Tacoma. This project started as a diagnostic to identify pathogens in race horses. It has grown into a multidisciplinary group that includes University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign / UWT that utilizes a smartphone and test kit to diagnosis multiple infectious disease. This type of pathogen detection kit can be purchased at a drugstore, analyzed on a smart phone, and reviewed online with a physician. This all started in our lab at the UWT with our students and research. This also was pivotal in developing the career path for our graduate student, Ryan Brisbin. Ryan designed the nucleic acid reagents that help to identify these diseases.  


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As with most projects, it is our research partners that mobilize the success of the results. Dr. David Nash an equine veterinarian utilized horses as an animal model for respiratory disease and explains “You can often more easily develop diagnostic tools for human use by coming in to development from the animal side of things first. Many diseases show up first in animals, kind of the canary in the coal mine.”  The findings pioneered by engineer Dr. Brian Cunningham, an engineer, were published in Analytical Chemistry in 2017 and demonstrated detection of four horses’ respiratory disease, and in Biomedical Microdevices, where the system was used to detect and quantify the presence of Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya virus in a droplet of whole blood.

            I was recently in Lexington, Kentucky presenting on this topic where the financial impact of infectious disease outbreaks in horses is significantly costly to horse owners and disrupts the business operations. Dr. Nash works closely with this group and notes that smartphone technology is the future of medicine as it “empowered front-line healthcare professionals. We can’t stop viruses and bacteria, but we can diagnose more quickly. We were able to demonstrate the clear benefit to humankind, as well as to animals, during the proposal phase of the project, and our results have proved our premise. Next, I want to go into the field, multiple sites, multiple geographic locations, and test in real-world situations.”

            At RAIN, we will continue to work to develop PathTracker in conjunction with the UI Urbana-Champaign. This will not only advance identify research in veterinarian medicine point-of-care diagnostics in human healthcare as well.

BioSensors at RAIN

Biosensors have become a popular subject in both wearable devices and military technology. This technology can identify threats in our environment or disease in our bodies. Much of the research we are focusing on at RAIN is biologically inspired means to detect threats that can alert individuals and soldiers before they are endangered.

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Recently I was invited to a “biologic hackathon” in Tampa hosted by MD5 and SOFWERX that focused on designing and rapid ideation of a Human Response Biosensor for soldiers. My team spent 48 hours designing a prototype monitor to give real-time feedback for a military response team that will help save lives in the field. This type of research is being done in many areas of the military and here at our incubator at RAIN.

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This includes the recent 2017 iGEM project to detect Arsenic by a DNA based plasmid.  iGEM uses Synthetic Biology to solve many global problems including pollution, contamination, disease and many other problems that nations share across the globe. We are passionate about using Synthetic Biology to help solve these problems at RAIN. Join as at our next SuperHeroes of Science lecture or Science Breakfast to learn more.