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The Future of Synthetic Biology

Words of wisdom from experts at the Canada SynBio 2022 conference

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

At its core, synthetic biology brings together the amazing worlds of biology and engineering. As Theodore von Karmen said “A Scientist discovers that which exists. An Engineer creates that which never was.” Synthetic biology or, as its commonly referred to, SynBio combines both.

SynBio: A Brief Overview

Though SynBio is a large field with many sectors, it’s broadly defined as the use of biology knowledge together with engineering tools (like genetic engineering) to change living things in a desirable way. It can also include creating new organisms.

So far, scientists have begun using microorganisms for pollution clean-up, engineering yeast to produce rose oil, resynthesizing the E. coli genome, and much more.

SynBio also has applications in cellular agriculture, the circular bioeconomy, and therapeutics.

About Canada SynBio 2022

Ontario Genomics recently held a conference aimed at catapulting the success of synthetic biology in Canada. To engage researchers, industry leaders, and trainees alike, SynBio 2022 included many fascinating talks and discussions, many of which served as the basis of what you’ll read below.

Cellular Agriculture

According to New Harvest, cellular agriculture is “the production of agricultural products from cell cultures rather than whole plants or animals.”

Why is this necessary? We’re consuming more and more animal-based products (especially meat); this is not sustainable. But the world will not suddenly stop eating meat, making cellular agriculture a crucial investment into a more sustainable future.

Many are at first critical of the field and the public sometimes does not feel comfortable with the idea of “lab-grown meat.” This is where regulatory scrutiny and bureaucracy play an important role, according to Tony Pavel, Deputy General Counsel of Global Food Law at Perfect Day. These rules help regulate new scientific innovations, provide a framework for companies to follow, and increase public confidence.

Pavel further explains that Canada is in the middle when it comes to the pace and ease of regulation for cellular agriculture. In comparison, the United States and Singapore are much faster regulation-wise, while the European Union is rather slow.

Despite the importance of this field, according to Dr. Fei Luo, CEO of Liven, and Lejjy Gafour, President of CULT Food Science, securing funding at the very beginning can be extremely difficult for cellular agriculture startups in Canada. One large reason for this is the higher risk aversion of funders in the country. This can lead to equity drain—there are many great companies in Canada but much of their funding comes from the U.S., where funding is easier to secure.

Isha Datar, Executive Director of New Harvest, adds on to this sentiment, saying that “cellular agriculture can either happen to Canada or in Canada” and we can still change which happens.

For example, many raw materials like sugars originate from Canada, but are then shipped elsewhere for processing. The same can happen with cellular agriculture where raw materials are shipped away to have “the value added” or the value can be created on Canadian soil.

As for what’s next in the field for Canada, Dr. Avi Sheshachalam, VP of Product at Future Fields, believes that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Research and development (R&D) is already happening worldwide. What Canada needs to do is to bring these technologies into the country and gather entrepreneurs, regulators, and the government together to approve new products and scale up.

Circular Bioeconomy

This concept is based on the idea that the current global economic model does not effectively value nature. The circular bioeconomy, however, does. Further, it “is a new economic model that emphasizes the use of renewable natural capital and focuses on minimizing waste, replacing the wide range of non-renewable, fossil-based products currently in use.”

An important idea to keep in mind when creating this bioeconomy, is every consequence of every action. Dr. Laurence Yang, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at Queen’s University, discussed the fact that when we consider net zero emissions, we also need to consider other environmental impacts; a certain product may be net zero but is also causing ocean acidification.

In addition, to propel Canada’s circular bioeconomy, Dr. Beth Mason, CEO at Verschuren Center, and Dr. Ryan Philippe, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Genome Canada, agree that, in this highly multi-disciplinary sector, the talent pool of highly qualified personnel needs to somewhat change.

Dr. Philippe spoke about the importance of more intersectional education. For instance, he suggested completing one’s PhD degree in one discipline and one’s post-doctoral degree in another, adjacent discipline.

Dr. Mason added to this, talking about the use of micro-credentialing to specialize talent. An engineer, for instance, may have a certain skillset but a company that is hiring needs “one extra piece of the puzzle” to make the candidate perfect for the role. This is where micro-credentials would be incredibly helpful for both recent graduates and employers.

Advanced Biologics

Biologics are medical treatments derived from natural sources such as human/animal cells and microorganisms and are often large complex molecules, though the definition sometimes varies. Creating biologics is a long process beginning from initial research to the end where clinical trials and approval are involved.

Dr. Sheila Singh, Professor of Surgery and Biochemistry and Chief Pediatric Neurosurgeon at McMaster Children’s Hospital, offered a great introduction to the challenges in advanced biologics. She said that although basic sciences are critical to provide us with innovations to translate, the pandemic highlighted the gaps in the pipeline between basic science and application.

Building on the importance of translating innovation into an approved biologic, Dr. Lakshmi Krishnan, Vice President of Life Sciences at the National Research Council, discussed how to take advantage of Canada’s public health model for advanced biologics.

She described a distributed model as a great option: “In cell therapy, there are two aspects. There’s the virus production itself. That you can do centrally so let’s enable some key centres in Canada to be able to, for example, produce the lentivirus for a CAR-T therapy. When it comes to the manipulation of the patient cells, if we can have a distributed model and empower many centres across Canada in the clinical setting near hospitals to do it, then I think we have a win-win solution.”

To provide some context, CAR-T therapies change a specific type of immune cell (sometimes directly from the patient)—T cells—to target cancerous cells and destroy them. Many CAR-T therapies involve a type of virus called a lentivirus which are used to change the T cells in a desirable way. In other words, the lentiviruses are first produced and then used to reconfigure the patients’ T cells.

Dr. Krishnan also had some advice for trainees interested in the advanced biologics field. She spoke about broadening one’s horizons and stepping out of one’s academic comfort zone. She suggested working at a small company in a different role, working in a government lab, and getting biotech experience to unlock new opportunities.

There are still many unknowns about the future of SynBio in Canada. But one thing is clear: the future of synthetic biology is bright. Whether it is changing the way we treat disease or consume food, SynBio is already affecting your life. Are you ready?

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Parmin Sedigh

Parmin Sedigh

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Science communicator trying to learn something new everyday | Published in Start It Up, Predict & The Writing Cooperative