Multilayered safety framework for living diagnostics in the colon

S. Mecacci, L. Torregrosa Barragán, E. Asín García*, R.W. Smith*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Introduction: Colorectal cancer is the second most deadly cancer worldwide. Current screening methods have low detection rates and frequently provide false positive results, leading to missed diagnoses or unnecessary colonoscopies. To tackle this issue, the Wageningen UR iGEM team from 2022 developed “Colourectal”, a living diagnostic tool for colorectal cancer. Following a synthetic biology approach, the project used an engineered Escherichia coli Nissle 1917 strain capable of binding to tumour cells that detects two distinct cancer biomarkers, and secretes a coloured protein observable in stool. Due to the utilization of genetically modified bacteria in vivo, precautionary biosafety measures were included within a three level safe-by-design strategy.

Results: The first genetic safeguard ensured confinement of the living diagnostic to the colon environment by implementing auxotrophy to mucin that is abundant in the colon lining. For this, a synthetic chimeric receptor was generated to ensure expression of essential genes in the presence of mucin. The second strategy limited the viability of the engineered bacteria to the human body, preventing proliferation in open environments. The use of a temperature sensitive kill switch induced bacterial cell death at temperatures below 37°C. The third biocontainment strategy was installed as an emergency kill switch to stop the Colourectal test at any point. By inducing a highly genotoxic response through CRISPR-Cas-mediated DNA degradation, cell death of E. coli Nissle is triggered.

Discussion: While the use of engineered microorganisms in human applications is not yet a reality, the safety considerations of our multi-layered strategy provide a framework for the development of future living diagnostic tools.
Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Systems Biology
Publication statusPublished - 22 Sept 2023


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