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Genetic engineering may lead to cheaper medical products, graduate research shows

Will Cheney hopes to break down misconceptions about the field and cut the cost of prescription drugs with his opioid biosensor
October 23, 2018

Imagine a world where pharmaceuticals are easily accessible to the individuals who need them most. Will Cheney is trying to turn that vision into a reality.

The master’s student in the Department of Biology aims to create an opioid biosensor that detects and quantifies opiates more cheaply and easily than current scientific procedures.

Combined with the efforts of his colleagues at the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB), his project could lead to the development of more affordable medical products.

Cheney works under the supervision of Vincent Martin, biology professor and Concordia University Research Chair in Microbial Engineering and Synthetic Biology. Cheney likens his work at the CASB to genetic engineering. His hope is that by breaking down misconceptions about his field, he will be able to demonstrate that it can provide solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, including food shortages and climate change.

I was opening the door on something novel in biology


How does this specific image relate to your research at Concordia?

Will Cheney: This is a living picture I created using E. coli. Each dot is a colony of bacterial cells that generate green fluorescent protein when placed under ultraviolet light. While this image does not directly relate to my research, it captures the spirit of synthetic biology, which seeks to find innovative uses for existing biological systems.

I designed this picture with a liquid handling robot in Concordia’s Genome Foundry, which uses a modified python script [a high-level programming language for general-purpose programming] from the Edinburgh’ Genome Foundry.

What is the hoped-for result of your project? And what impact could you see it having on people’s lives?

WC: At the heart of the CASB is a metabolic engineering lab. Our goal is to develop medically relevant products by changing the metabolism of yeast.

My biosensor plays a role in the metabolic engineering process called strain optimization. In this step, we screen for different mutations or genes to optimize yield. The biosensor quickly evaluates these changes and allows us to identify optimal production strains. Due to the modular nature of the sensing mechanism, we foresee its application in a variety of pharmaceuticals.

When working with opioids, it’s important to acknowledge their potential for abuse. While the World Health Organization lists them as an essential drug, preventable deaths due to abuse have drastically increased in the past 10 years. I hope the biosensor provides a model system for studying the interactions between these drugs and their targets.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?

WC: Ironically, what I struggle with most is communicating my work, so I want to improve my ability to engage people without losing them.

What are some of the key areas where your work could be applied?

WC: We hope to provide an alternative and cheaper source of opioids, which will then offer individuals who experience extreme or chronic pain with better access to pharmaceuticals. Lab-based opioids also reduce the amount of farmland required for poppy production.

In addition, the biosensor may also help us to understand how different opiates interact with receptors in the human brain.

What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to study this subject and get involved in the field?

WC: I first discovered genetics in high school biology and was naturally attracted to the subject. After all, genetics run the most complex thing in existence — life.

It wasn’t until my final year of undergraduate studies, though, that I decided to pursue a graduate degree. What convinced me was a course I took on synthetic biology. During class, we studied an anti-malarial drug called artemisinin, and I had this amazing feeling that I was opening a door on something novel in biology.

How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research? What advice would you give them?

WC: Students should reach out to professors and inquire about opportunities to work in their labs. We are always looking for talented students!

Before they do this, though, it’s important to read professors’ research papers and ensure your interests match. Genuine curiosity makes research enjoyable and is necessary for success.

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

WC: My favourite thing at Concordia is the sense of community within both the CASB and the Loyola Campus. The CASB not only provides me with access to state-of-the-art technologies and techniques, but also serves as a magnet for like-minded individuals.

This creates an exciting environment that exposes me to new ideas and areas of research. The lab serves as a whetstone to refine your own concepts and opens new possibilities for future projects.

Are there any partners, agencies or other funding/support attached to your research?

WC: The Fonds de Recherche du Québec - Nature et technologies (FRQ-NT) provides funding for my research project.

Learn more about Concordia’s Department of Biology and the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology.

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