Israeli Student Team Creates Award-winning Decoy that Tricks Coronavirus

As we all know by now, the new Coronavirus that launched the COVID-19 pandemic almost a year ago is very tricky – so to overcome it, scientists have to be tricky as well. 


A student team at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa recently won a gold medal in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) international synthetic biology competition for work developing an active gel to capture SARS-CoV-2 viral particles, thus preventing the infection of host cells. Unlike existing sanitization products, the gel they invented provides active skin protection for hours and does not damage the skin microbiome.


For the seventh time, the Technion has won a gold medal at the iGEM Competition in synthetic biology. COVID-19 is transmitted via two main routes – inhalation of airborne droplets containing millions of viral particles emitted by infected people through coughing, sneezing, speaking and breathing or by touching the face following contact with contaminated surfaces. 


The goal of the Technion team, most of whom are students in the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering, was to develop a product that would lower contact infection. The gel offers two prominent advantages over current sanitization solutions. The first is its long-lasting protection; the gel works for hours. The second is that the gel is selective – it does not harm the skin microbiome or the body’s cells, as it specifically targets COVID-19.

The prestigious iGEM Competition was initiated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2004 to provide students, especially undergraduates, with an opportunity to experiment in scientific and applied research in synthetic biology. 


Technion teams have participated since 2012, following an initiative by Prof. Roee Amit, head of the Synthetic Biology Laboratory for the Decipherment of Genomic Codes in the Technion faculty 


“The achievements of the Technion’s iGEM teams are significant,” said Amit. “They do not merely amount to medals, as we have accumulated research and meaningful intellectual property that are expressed in scientific articles and in a patent published by two of our teams.”


This year, the competition was held online for the first time, with the participation of 256 teams from universities across the globe. The Technion team was led by students Tomer Antman and Hadas Yung, who joined Amit’s lab during their second-year studies to get what they called, “a taste of the world of research.” 


At the beginning of the year the students proposed various ideas for their joint project, but COVID-19 shook the world, leading them to choose the challenge of breaking the chain of infection. As Antman recalled, “We knew that when it came to the COVID crisis we had to take action, not to just wait in the hope of positive developments. We took a decision to create those developments. We decided to act.”


“We learned that SARS-CoV-2 is able to survive on the skin for hours, several times longer than flu viral particles,” explained Yung. “Fortunately, common disinfectants were found to be effective against the virus, but they have two disadvantages – they destroy the virus only at the time they are used with no lasting effect, and they also damage our skin’s microbiome, the delicate balance of bacteria, viruses, and fungus that live on our skin, which plays an important role in our overall health.”


“There are receptors on the surface of the lungs,” said Yung. “There are spikes on virus that allows it to attach and increase. We trick the virus, we display the lung receptors on different receptors we created, a polymer particle and a spore of a safe bacteria strain. 


Based on a temperature-responsive hydrogel that creates an undetectable film on the skin after application, it mimics the receptor found in the lungs and the bait binds with the virus’s spikes. By combining the players, in the novel hydrogel formula, a unique trap is created on the skin, deflecting the virus from the lungs. 


“We compare the virus to a fish and the system to fishing,” added Antman. “The SARS-CoV-2 gateway to the host cells is the ACE2 protein, so our “bait” is engineered ACE2 and another ‘decoy protein,’ which entices the viral particles to attach to it. The ‘hook’ is the element that carries the bait, and the ‘fishing rod’ is the gel itself, which holds them all together.” By washing the hands, it removes the virus and greatly reduces the chances that it will reach the lungs. 


One of the conditions for participating in the international competition is community contribution. For this purpose, the team joined forces with the student teams from Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University to focus on reducing racial prejudice and racism in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) studies.  The 14-member Technion team, composed of 7 women and 7 men, was also one of four teams nominated for an “Inclusivity” award in the competition.


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