Bioengineering UTEC alumni work with MIT on reducing pollution in contaminated areas from heavy metals in Peru, as a part of the winning project of the MIT-UTEC Seed Fund 2022

Researcher professor Dr. Alberto Donayre from Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) and researcher professor Dr. Angela Belcher from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were awarded the MIT-UTEC Seed Fund 2022, with the project Implementation of programmable biomaterials for bioremediation of heavy metals in contaminated areas in Peru. 


This seed fund aims to solve a real-life problem: polluted areas from heavy metal with the help of students. As a result,  bioengineering UTEC alumni Gladys Cavero Rozas and Jose Martin Cisneros were awarded a scholarship to participate and collaborate in this project.


In July of 2022 Gladys and Jose Martin had to travel to the United States to work at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, as a part of Phase I of this project: “Bioadsorbents made of engineered M13 Phage for remediation of heavy metals”. 


Gladys Cavero and Jose Martin Cisneros were able to share with us this amazing experience:


What is this project about?
People from rural communities in Peru are exposed to heavy metal contaminants, lacking alternatives for bioremediation and cost-effective decontamination solutions. In this way, we proposed an effective system that could remove heavy metals to manage and reduce exposure to these pollutants. For this purpose, we used synthetic biology tools to modify a bacteriophage (a type of virus) to give it the ability to uptake these harmful components. The development of the project included an in situ evaluation of a copper mine in Peru, and experimental work in the laboratories at MIT, Boston, USA. 


What were your roles in the development of the project?
In Peru: We worked on the coordination and organization of the trip to the mine. Moreover, we attended along with Dr. Belcher’s team to the UTEC campus to further discuss the work we were planning on doing. 
In the USA: We participated with Dr. Belcher’s team in the design and experimental process of the proposal. We learned and performed advanced molecular cloning techniques such as Gibson Assembly, PCR amplification, and Recombinant protein expression to design and produce novel bacteriophages. Furthermore, we synthesized a hydrogel composed of bacteriophages with an affinity for heavy metals. 


What was it like working at Dr. Belcher’s lab? 
Dr. Belcher has extensive experience with bacteriophages to design novel biomaterials. Working at Dr. Belcher’s Lab was one of the best professional experiences we have ever had. We had meetings with Dr. Belcher and her colleagues to coordinate the design of the experimental processes and biomaterial design. Two scientists of the Belcher Lab, Jay Sacane and Nimrod Heldman, trained us in the experimental procedures. 


Will you continue to work on this project?
Yes, given the scope of the project and the MISTI-UTEC grant, we will continue to work on the project in the present and the following year. Also, the MIT team is expecting in the future to visit Peruvian mines and learn about contaminants and heavy metal extraction. We applied for a grant from PROCIENCIA (CONCYTEC) to continue our research.

What has your experience been like working together with Researcher Professor Dr. Alberto Donayre?
Professor Donayre has been great support from the very beginning. We have worked with him several times in our careers, such as in research and our thesis projects. He has always been very open and helpful, willing to support us in whatever we need. This project has been no exception. We had constant meetings for organization and planning where he helped us define the details of the activities both in Peru as well as in the USA. He also gave us independence which helped us to have more responsibility and learn a lot more. 


What do you take away from this trip and how do you think it has contributed to your professional life?
This experience has allowed us to work in a laboratory equipped with the latest technology, alongside world-renowned scientists. This was a unique opportunity that has opened doors to new projects and has given us valuable experience and contacts. It has also allowed us to see what the work and academic environment are like in the United States and about technological advances in bioengineering. In this way, this experience has been very enriching for the professional plans we have for the future.