Engineering an HIV Synthetic Biology Sensor (HIVSynse)

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: London Centre for Nanotechnology


HIV is a disease affecting 40 million people worldwide, with about 85 % living in developing countries where clinical diagnostic and antiretroviral therapy monitoring platforms are limited. There is therefore a drive for cheaper, more sensitive and specific diagnostics for monitoring HIV infection and treatment and that are fit-for-purpose in settings with the highest burden. Synthetic biology techniques present huge scope for the design of highly tailored sensing systems that can couple effectively with cheap, portable devices such as mobile phones for readout and connectivity. In particular, cell-free synthetic biology allows for rapid "design-build-test" cycles that will enable us to screen methods for developing robust amplification mechanisms in wash-free, low complexity diagnostic approaches. HIVSynse will capitalise on this potential and develop HIV biomarker detection and amplification strategies using an in-house (Department of Biochemical Engineering) and commercially available cell-free synthesis systems. Viral RNA and host microRNA detection strategies will be investigated along with the use of expressed, high affinity nanoparticles against viral antigens to enable both molecular and protein-based detection approaches. This collaborative project will be realised through the bridging of expertise at the London Centre for Nanotechnology and Biochemical Engineering at UCL with expertise in synthetic biology, diagnostic development and nanoparticle technologies. A successful candidate will get the opportunity to deliver cutting-edge research at the intersection of synthetic biology and nanotechnology where the student will interface with the broader networks of the CDT in BioDesign Engineering, the UCL Centre for Synthetic Biology, the Department of Biochemical Engineering EPSRC research and training centres (Future Targeted Healthcare Manufacturing Hub, Vax Hub and CDT in Bioprocess Engineering Leadership) and the i-sense EPSRC IRC. The project seeks to deliver diagnostic technologies with significant real-world impact that enables us to look towards a future of self-monitoring of treatment for HIV and other diseases, both infectious and chronic as well as earlier detection in a manner accessible to all.

Planned Impact

The 2016 UK Roadmap Bio-design for the Bio-economy highlighted the substantial impact that synthetic biology can bring to the UK and global economies by developing: frontier science and technology; establishing a healthy innovation pipeline; a highly skilled workforce and an environment in which innovative science and businesses can thrive. Synthetic biology promises to transform the UK Bio-economy landscape, bringing bio-sustainable and affordable manufacturing routes to all industrial sectors and will ensure society can tackle many contemporary global Grand Challenges including: Sustainable Manufacturing, Environmental Sustainability Energy, Global Healthcare, and Urban Development. Whilst synthetic biology is burgeoning in the UK, we now need to build on the investments made and take a further lead in training next generation scientists to ensure sustained growth of a capable workforce to underpin the science base development and growth in an advanced UK bio-economy.
This training provided by this CDT will give students from diverse backgrounds a unique synthesis of computational, biomolecular and cellular engineering skills, a peer-to-peer and industrial network, and unique entrepreneurial insight. In so doing, it will address key EPSRC priority areas and Bioeconomy strategic priorities including: Next-generation therapeutics; Engineered biomaterials; Renewable alternatives for fuels, chemicals and other small molecules; Reliable, predictable, and scalable bioprocesses; Sustainable future; Lifelong health & wellbeing.
Advances created by our BioDesign Engineering approach will address major societal challenges by delivering new routes for chemical/pharma/materials manufacture through to sustainable energy, whilst providing clean growth and reductions in energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprints. Increased industry awareness of bio-options with better civic understanding will drive end-user demand to create market pull for products. The CDT benefits from unrivalled existing academic-industry frameworks at the host institutions, which will provide direct links to industrial partners and a direct pathway to early economic and industrial impact.

This CDT will develop 80-100 next-generation scientists and technologists (via the funded cohort and wider integration of aligned students at the three institutions) as adept scientists and engineers, instilled with technical leadership, who as broadly trained individuals will fill key skills gaps and could be expected to impact internationally through leadership roles in the medium term. Importantly the CDT addresses key skill-gaps identified with industry, which are urgently required to create and support high value jobs that will enable the UK to compete in global markets. Commercialisation and entrepreneurship training will equip the next generation of visionaries and leaders needed to accelerate and support the creation of new innovative companies to exploit these new technologies and opportunities.

The UK government identified Synthetic Biology as one of the "Eight Great Technologies" that could be a key enabler to economic and societal development. This CDT will be at the forefront of research that will accelerate the clean growth agenda and the development of a resilient circular bioeconomy, and will align with key EPSRC prosperity outcomes including a productive, healthy and resilient nation. To foster wider societal impact, the CDT will expect all students to contribute to public outreach and engagement activities including: open days, schools visits, and science festival events: students will participate in an outreach programme, with special focus on widening participation.

This CDT will contribute to the development of industrial strategy through the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (SBLC), Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum (IBLF), and wider Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy and Professional Institutes.


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/S022856/1 31/03/2019 29/09/2027
2505634 Studentship EP/S022856/1 30/09/2020 29/09/2024 Megha Gill