Delft student team develops gene doping detection method and wins prizes in worldwide Synthetic Biology competition

News - 29 October 2018 - Webredaction Communication

TU Delft students have devised and developed a method for detecting gene doping. This method, called ADOPE (Advanced Detection of Performance Enhancement) has the potential to combat the abuse of gene therapy in sport. Through this project, the students in the iGEM team aim to highlight how important it is that synthetic biology is used safely.  They presented their idea at last week’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston, winning prizes for their new application and product design.

Targeted reading of DNA
The Delft students have developed a new protein themselves that can detect gene-doping DNA in blood and then add a kind of barcode to that DNA. The added barcode is specific to the athlete and ensures that only the detected gene-doping DNA can be read, using existing nanopore technology. The protein that the students created for this purpose is a fusion of two existing proteins. “One of the proteins is part of the CRISPR-Cas family, a family of proteins that can cut and paste with DNA. We program this so-called dxCas9 protein to go in search of the gene-doping DNA. The other protein adds the barcode, enabling it to be read using so-called nanopores, tiny holes through which DNA can be threaded. This produces an electric signal that is specific to the doping DNA and can be read on a computer screen” says Lisa Büller, manager of the TU Delft student team. 

TU Delft – A detection method for gene doping – iGEM 2018

Best new application and best product design
The competition features prizes in various categories. The Delft team won their prizes for the best new application and best product design. To get this far, the students spoke with various experts worldwide, integrating their feedback into the design. This process included organising an expert discussion on gene doping in Scotland, bioethics workshops in China and train debates on synthetic biology throughout the Netherlands. The students also came up with the idea of a virtual reality laboratory to improve the teaching of safety in laboratories.

The test method developed by the Delft team is fast, cheap and accurate in detecting gene doping in athletes’ blood. The method also takes the athletes’ genetic privacy into account. “Having seen the recent hacks of athletes’ medical data, we consider it to be very important to be able to test for gene doping without also obtaining information that is not directly required for this result. This is therefore exactly what we do in our lab,” says Büller.

in addition, the students also feel it is important for gene-doping detection to stay ahead of developments in gene doping itself.  For this reason, they are collaborating with doping experts from the University of Stirling in Scotland, among others. The TU Delft students also challenged cybersecurity experts to circumvent their detection method on the computer by designing new gene-doping DNA.  The team created software that can effectively distinguish gene-doping DNA from any other DNA. “Our software even outsmarted the cybersecurity experts. It is a self-learning system – the algorithm learns from each piece of gene-doping DNA that it encounters. This enables it to anticipate new developments, which makes the test attractive for the anti-doping authorities,” says Büller.

“ADOPE is an intriguing and admirable project.” – Olivier de Hon, Netherlands Doping Authority

Proof of concept
Although the students have proved that their method works in the lab, a product is still in the making. “It is a proof of concept, so a lot still needs to be optimised. Our fusion protein is being closely monitored by various institutes", says Büller. “The Netherlands Doping Authority, the Sanquin Blood Bank and the RIKILT Institute for Food Safety at Wageningen University & Research have already shown an interest.” The students are confident that their idea will be developed further. In addition to tackling gene doping, the test could also have a major influence in the field of virus detection, identifying genetic defects and food safety.

More information
A brief introduction to the ADOPE project on Youtube
Details of the ADOPE project on the TU Delft iGEM website

Jard Mattens (Human Practices Manager, iGEM TU Delft),, +31637419679
 (in Boston until 4 November: time difference -5 hrs.)
Claire Hallewas (TU Delft media relations officer),, +31640953085