By Kristin Bartus

These days it’s rare for sports fans to go a week without reading about yet another player sustaining a concussion. In addition, there’s often controversy surrounding whether or not the athlete should have been allowed to return to the field. There’s hope for a better future, however, when it comes to dealing with these mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBIs). A group of University of Oregon undergraduates at the state-of-the-art Knight Campus has been working on creating a simple test that can diagnose concussions right on the sidelines. Representatives of the 13-member group recently presented their project at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Paris.

Multidisciplinary teams of students from around the world have been competing in the iGEM Jamboree for 19 years, but this was the first time UO sent a team. Anissa Benabbas, a PhD student in bioengineering professor Calin Plesa’s lab, spearheaded the effort. Benabbas had participated in iGEM herself as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz. She found it a fun and enlightening opportunity to collaborate with other students in an interdisciplinary manner. Serving as the UO team’s mentor, Benabbas began recruiting undergraduates in spring 2022. Once the team was formed, the students had to brainstorm an idea for the project.

“iGEM prioritizes that each team’s project directly impacts their community. As students of the University of Oregon, we thought it would make the most sense for us to create something that could be used by our school’s sports teams, especially our football team,” says team organizational lead Theo Seah, a senior human physiology major. “So we figured we could create a concussion biosensor that would help team physicians and athletes make a better decision on returning to play after hard contact.”

Seah explains that current sideline screenings are often subjective, like checking pupil size or memory recall. For an accurate diagnosis, the player now needs to go to the hospital for a CT scan. The UO iGEM team aims to develop a biosensor test that uses a small amount of blood, sweat, or saliva to gauge biomarkers post-injury. In the case of concussions, proteins released by the brain can indicate damage. Ultimately, the team believes their research can someday result in a product that provides a quick, affordable concussion diagnosis.

The team members spent six months focusing intensely on their project and acquiring new skills in the process. “We have had to stretch ourselves past the work that we do every day in our classes, learn new laboratory techniques, read intensive academic papers, and engage with adults from the community to convince them that our work is just as important as an established lab or industry,” says team leader Carmen Resnick, a senior biochemistry major.

That hard work began to pay off with October’s trip to Paris. “I am particularly excited to bring Oregon to the world scale,” Resnick says, “the work being done by not just our team — but also the environment that we are working in at the Knight Campus is amazing and not yet recognized for its potential.”

Illustration by Dan Pegoda