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Technion undergrads wow Paris meet with plan to reduce chemo-induced hair loss

Students working toward developing synthetic method for hard-to-obtain compound shown likely to prompt hair growth win accolades at international bio-engineering competition

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: A chemotherapy patient lying in a hospital bed. (iStock via Getty Images)
Illustrative: A chemotherapy patient lying in a hospital bed. (iStock via Getty Images)

Israeli students are attempting to pioneer technology to reduce chemotherapy-induced hair loss — and their plans recently wowed judges at an international biology competition, securing them two awards and six runner-up rankings.

A substance called “decursin” can prompt hair growth, according to various studies published in in recent years. But this discovery has not given rise to the development of products for widespread use, as the compound is produced from a rare seasonal flower in an expensive and inefficient process.

A dozen undergraduate students at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology decided to work on a way to synthetically produce decursin to make it accessible and help large numbers of people facing hair loss. They are focused only on hair loss by people undergoing chemotherapy, as it is a different process than natural hair loss and, they say, more suitable for treatment by decursin.

The team from the Technion is engineering a special bacteria that is designed to produce decursin. The students say they have completed all their planning and are ready to put their design to the test in a lab. Their aim is to develop a scalable method, and enable decursin to be included in shampoos and other hair products for cancer patents undergoing chemotherapy.

The team of students entered the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition in Paris, and was selected last week as the best bio-manufacturing project and as the team with the most precise biological measurement methods. It was also ranked among the top four teams in six other categories, including for giving the best presentation.

“It was amazing seeing our work being appreciated and seeing that everything we’ve been working on for the last six months is appreciated,” Maia Lehrman, one of the students, told The Times of Israel. “We hope that this work will help many cancer patients facing hair loss.”

The Technion team behind technology to reduce chemo-induced hair loss, from right to left: Iser Snoyman, Amit Nelkin, Nova Noiman, Baraah Rashed, Matan Hoory, Ran Benayoun and Yasmin Habib; Sitting: Irina Shkalikov, team head Maya Lerman, Mazal Faraj, Reut Laufer, and Yana Shklovski. (Courtesy of the Technion Spokesperson’s Office)

Decursin is a compound derived from the roots of the Angelica gigas, a plant grown exclusively in China and Korea. It has many beneficial properties including the abilities to suppress inflammation and prevent apoptosis – or programmed cell death, which includes hair cells. But not only is the plant rare, it contains only a tiny amount of decursin, making the extraction process very labor intensive.

“We have now engineered three enzymes, contained in bacteria, which in turn produce a substance called decursinol, which can be turned in to decursin,” explained Lehrman. “We want to be the first to mass produce decursin.”

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition was founded in 2004 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to give students a chance to experience scientific and applied research in the world of synthetic biology. For the first time, this year it was held away from Massachusetts — in Paris.

The three-day competition ended on Friday. Roee Amit, professor in the Technion’s Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering, has been leading his institution’s teams since 2012, and said the success enjoyed by past entries in the real world bodes well for this one.

“Beyond participation and winning, it is important to understand that some of the developments by the Technion teams have already been turned into applied and commercial tracks and have a real impact in the world,” he said.

“One of the most prominent examples is Koracell, which was founded on the basis of the technology developed by our students in preparation for a competition iGEM in 2019,” Amit added. “The group developed an innovative technology for the production of honey without bees using a genetically engineered bacterium. This technology allows the honey’s texture and taste to be precisely designed, and it is also a platform for simulating other natural metabolic processes.”

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