A new approach to therapeutic monitoring for mental health conditions

· Customer Testimonial

A new approach to therapeutic monitoring for mental health conditions

The iGEM Competition is an annual synthetic biology event open to groups of students from all over the world undertaking their high school, undergraduate or graduate studies. Multidisciplinary teams work together to design and build a novel test system, and come together to present their work for judging at the Grand Jamboree. The contest is dedicated to advancing developments in synthetic biology that will help to solve some of the problems currently facing the environment, society and human health.

A key issue noted by the 2023 iGEM team at TU_BS is the toxicity risk associated with lithium-based therapies, highly effective mood stabilizers that are commonly used to treat mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder. Lithium can be toxic at higher concentrations in the body, making regular monitoring of blood lithium levels extremely important. Unfortunately, these tests must currently be performed in a healthcare environment by medically trained personnel, with results taking some time to be returned from the laboratory. Frequent hospital visits and blood tests are understandably inconvenient and unpleasant for individuals, but there is no other monitoring option available at present.

The lack of testing alternatives motivated students at TU_BS to launch their new project – Li+onSwitch – as explained by Daniel, a member of last year’s iGEM team: “Approximately 2.5 million people in Germany are currently experiencing bipolar disorder. Although there are medications available to help those affected, some of them – such as lithium therapy – could be associated with negative side effects. We realized there was a great need for a reliable self-test that could be performed at home, enabling the early detection and prevention of toxicity without a hospital visit.”

Daniel Schulze
Photo courtesy of Technische Universität Braunschweig

The team used a recently discovered Li+ riboswitch to develop a robust reporter system in E. coli, that could reliably determine the lithium level in blood or saliva samples. They were awarded 3 PIPETBOY acu 2 serological pipette controllers directly from INTEGRA in June 2023, and began using them straight away to speed up various liquid handling tasks involved in bacterial culture. Daniel continued: “A large part of our work involved designing our own plasmid constructs and testing potential reporter systems, so we were working extensively with liquid cultures. We were very excited to receive the PIPETBOY pipette controllers from INTEGRA, and they quickly became essential daily tools in our lab, significantly speeding up repetitive pipetting protocols and leading to greater lab productivity and more free time for other aspects of our research. They are also extremely precise instruments, so helped to improve the reproducibility and consistency of our many manual liquid handling tasks.”

The 3 pipette controllers were dedicated to different areas of the lab, for example in the fume hood, so they were always ready to use for each particular task. This also helped to avoid cross-contamination, which was crucial for ensuring the accuracy of results. Another major benefit of the PIPETBOY instruments was their light weight and ergonomic design, which made the many hours of pipetting far more comfortable and enjoyable for the committed group of students. “Initially, we often had to pipette LB culture medium from our stock solution into many individual 3-5 ml aliquots, which was a tedious and error-prone process. The PIPETBOY controllers allowed us to aspirate the total volume of medium needed once, and then dispense it into the separate tubes, rather than painstakingly transferring liquid from the stock solution into the target vessels one by one. This resulted in a huge cumulative time saving, as well as reducing the hand and wrist strain we often felt after a lot of manual pipetting,” said Daniel.

“To make a lithium testing system suitable for home use, it must not contain any microorganisms, so our final goal was always to develop a completely cell-free gene expression system that would still function outside of a bacterial host. The initial project was successful as a proof of concept, and we hope it will spark interest in this application in the near future,” Daniel concluded. The iGEM Grand Jamboree took place from November 2-5 in Paris, and the TU_BS team was awarded Best Diagnostics Project, Overgrad, as well as a gold medal. They were also ranked in the top 10 postgraduate teams, and were nominated for Best New Composite Part, Overgrad, achievements that are a testament to the group’s diligence over the preceding months.


  1. Deutsche Gesellschaft für bipolare Störungen e.V. (DGBS). (2023, April 19). dgbs.de. dgbs.de/bipolare-stoerung/verlauf
Pipette controller PIPETBOY acu 2 in different colors