Kent State Student Team Selected for Merck International Competition

Four Kent State University students have been chosen to compete in the German pharmaceutical company Merck KGaA’s International Protein Production Cell Line Challenge.

The student team, composed of biotechnology students Mitchell Lesko, Eric Veverka, Allison Davis, and Joram Rana, are one out of twelve teams from around the world. To compete, the team will seek to find what methods encourage antibody expression in a Chinese Hamster Ovarian (CHO) cell. Whichever team’s cell line produces the most antibodies wins the competition.

“From my point of view, this challenge not only provides KSU students with the opportunity to use all the skills and knowledge acquired during their undergraduate studies, but also to see where their knowledge placed them on the world stage,” said one of their mentors, Dr. Elda Hegmann, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.”

Antibody production is one of the immune system’s most important functions in fighting off threats. When the process is damaged, a host of illnesses can develop, taking advantage of the body’s inability to fight back. As such, finding new methods to boost the body’s ability to produce antibodies is crucial to understanding what causes this breakdown and helping those suffering from immunodeficiency disorders.

The students work with a three-stage process, under the guidance of Dr. Jennifer McDonough, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences. In the first step, which the team is working on now, they must identify an unspecified antibody expression DNA sequence and sequence it. To do this, the team inserts the DNA sequence into a bacteria’s plasmid, a self-replicating, circular DNA strand in bacteria. Once the DNA sequence is inserted, the bacteria’s plasmid will replicate the sequence naturally as the bacteria multiplies and grows. After a month of growing the bacteria, the DNA can be extracted and sequenced at an outside laboratory.

This sequencing step leads to stage two, where the team will insert the sequenced DNA antibody expression into a CHO cell. Once this is done, the last and most important stage begins: researching how to optimize the cells to produce a high yield of the antibody. The team only has a year to accomplish everything in the three-stage process.

“Everything is building up to the end result,” Lesko said.

The antibody the team is working with, IgG1, is one of the most abundant proteins in human plasma. Antibodies are a part of the immune system’s main line of defense against pathogens, and finding a method to help the body produce more antibodies in times of need is a stepping stone toward designing treatments for various diseases.

Dan Pompili:
Emily Vincent: 330-672-8595,


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