How the third biotechnology revolution will change medicine forever


News that a team of engineers from Harvard University and MIT has developed a new face mask capable of detecting coronavirus infection in the wearer has been hailed as a historic breakthrough by the medical and scientific communities. The prototype, which uses “a wide range of synthetic biology [SynBio] sensors’ to identify Covid-19 pathogens within 90 minutes, can also be adapted to diagnose a variety of other viruses.

The invention not only demonstrates the many applications of SynBio, but also highlights how the fight against Covid (and other infectious diseases) relies on this area of ​​research. Described by some as the third biotechnology revolution after the discovery of the DNA double helix and the human genome project, SynBio has overcome initial concerns about its use to take advantage of a purple patch of popularity for its ability to solve a host of health puzzles that have plagued the human race for centuries.

SynBio helps vaccine development efforts

This exciting branch of scientific research is concerned with the design and construction of new artificial biological devices, organisms and pathways, as well as the reconfiguration of existing biological systems to address important health issues. It differs from genetic engineering in that the latter simply transfers genetic material from one organism to another, while SynBio builds entirely new sequences from scratch. For this reason, there are concerns that the practice has more far-reaching ramifications than we can possibly foresee and, as such, should be treated with extreme caution. The coronavirus epidemic has only exacerbated these anxieties.

However, SynBio has been instrumental in the fight against the pandemic. While it took six months to discover and mass manufacture a vaccine against the 2009 influenza pandemic, SynBio enabled much faster development of a vaccine against the coronavirus. In the early days after the outbreak was announced, biotech companies such as GenScript, Moderna and BionTech used SynBio techniques to accelerate and strengthen efforts to diagnose and vaccinate Covid-19. Thanks to a five-step program of SynBio research, GenScript was able to isolate coronavirus antibodies in mice. Within 66 days of the release of the genome sequence to the rest of the scientific world, the first Moderna vaccine was administered in a human trial. This rapid development and deployment has certainly saved countless lives from the ravages of disease – all thanks to SynBio.

Research on investments in other fields

Vaccine development may have catapulted SynBio to the forefront of mainstream consciousness, but it is only the tip of the iceberg of what the discipline could potentially achieve. The creation of tools that allow precise methods of DNA assembly and sequencing, for example, is one of the most promising innovations, as it dramatically expands researchers’ ability to read genomics. Ways to accurately create synthetic DNA constructs, including the ligase cycling reaction (LCR), are currently underway. developed by Pacific Biosciences (PacBio), based in the United States. In what is seen as a big step towards solving some of the most enduring challenges in epigenetics, genomics, transcriptomics and, of course, new treatments, PacBio’s technology helps validate changes to cells and ensures that they are done safely through a process called “resequencing.”

PacBio should receive a $ 900 million the injection of liquidity from its stakeholder, SB Management, in the near future to advance its research. The SoftBank subsidiary in Japan has been a major driver of SynBio investments in recent years, also having invested in Tessera Therapeutics, which made headlines for its progress in transposition and retrotransposition. In this technique, a therapeutic code is edited in human DNA in a process called “genetic writing”, allowing genetic diseases to be tackled where they are caused.

This branch of SynBio aims to build and test thousands of engineered and synthetic mobile genetic elements to write and rewrite the human genome. This will allow for non-invasive treatments, as doctors could use the writing of genes to redirect the immune system against cancer and infectious microbes and treat diseases at their source – nothing less with the help of technology designed to analyze. directly the human body and its health conditions at the molecular level. This, in turn, gives them the opportunity to gain access to a better understanding of the causes of diseases and how drugs can be developed to prevent and treat them. Some of the flagship tools are developed by Netherlands-based Lumicks, whose arsenal includes optical tweezers which can manipulate single molecules, as well as an immune cell analyzer that can refine cancer treatment programs.

Science in the war on disease

While these individual case studies are promising enough on their own, the really positive news is the industry overview. The hundreds of millions raised by PacBio and Tessera are impressive numbers on their own, but pale in comparison to the over $ 3 billion which was lifted by SynBio startups in the first six months of 2020 alone. This is a significant increase in the $ 1.9 billion that the sector attracted the previous year – and in a period of austerity caused by the coronavirus – indicating that SynBio research will accelerate in the future.

This optimism is particularly strong for the medicine, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. As research, understanding of the human body and the mechanisms of disease progresses, the medical field is looking at a revolutionary development, where beating disease, from coronavirus to cancer and far beyond, has suddenly become a distinct possibility.

Picture: National Institute for Human Genome Research / Flickr


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