The news that a team of engineers from Harvard University and MIT have developed a new face mask capable of detecting coronavirus infection in the wearer has been greeted as a landmark breakthrough by the medical and scientific communities. The prototype, which uses “a broad 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 numerous applications of SynBio, but also highlights how much the fight against Covid (and other infectious diseases) relies on this area of research. Described by some as the third biotechnological revolution after the discovery of the DNA double helix and the Human Genome Project, SynBio has overcome initial trepidations about its use to enjoy a purple patch of popularity for its ability to solve a multitude of healthcare conundrums that have plagued the human race for centuries.
SynBio aiding in vaccine development efforts
This exciting branch of scientific research concerns itself 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 healthcare issues. It differs from genetic engineering in that the latter simply transfers genetic material from one organism to another, while SynBio constructs entirely new sequences from scratch. For this reason, there have been some fears that the practice has further reaching ramifications than we can possibly foresee and as such, should be treated with extreme caution. The outbreak of coronavirus merely served to exacerbate those anxieties.
However, SynBio has proven to be instrumental in the battle against the pandemic. While it took six months to discover and mass-manufacture a vaccine for the 2009 flu pandemic, SynBio has allowed for a much more expedited development of a coronavirus vaccine. In the early days following the announcement of the outbreak, biotech companies such as GenScript, Moderna and BionTech used SynBio techniques to accelerate and empower Covid-19 diagnosis and vaccination efforts. Thanks to a five-step program of SynBio research, GenScript were able to isolate coronavirus antibodies in mice. Within 66 days of the genome sequence being released to the rest of the scientific world, the first Moderna vaccine was administered in a human trial. That rapid development and deployment is certain to have saved countless lives from the ravages of the disease – all thanks to SynBio.
Investment driving research in other areas
Vaccine development might have catapulted SynBio to the forefront of mainstream consciousness, but it represents just the tip of the iceberg of what the discipline could potentially achieve. The creation of tools that enable precise DNA assembly and sequencing methods, for example, is one of the most promising innovations, because it greatly expands researchers’ ability in genomic reading. Ways to precisely create synthetic DNA constructs, including Ligase Cycling Reaction (LCR), are currently being developed by US-based Pacific Biosciences (PacBio). In what is considered a big steps towards solving some of the most persistent challenges in the areas of epigenetics, genomics, transcriptomics, and of course, new treatments, PacBio’s technology enables to validate the edits made to cells and ensures that they are done safely via a process called “resequencing”.
PacBio is expected to receive a $900 million cash injection from its stakeholder, SB Management, in the near future to further advance its research. The subsidiary of Japan’s SoftBank has been a main driver behind SynBio investments in recent years, having also invested into Tessera Therapeutics, which has made headlines for its progress in transposition and retrotransposition. In this technique, a therapeutic code is edited into human DNA in a process called “gene writing”, allowing to tackle genetic diseases right where they are caused.
This branch of SynBio aims to build and test thousands of engineered and synthetic mobile genetic elements for writing and rewriting the human genome. This will make for non-invasive treatments, since doctors could use gene writing to redirect the immune system against cancer and infectious microbes and treat diseases at their source – no less with the help of technology designed to analyze the human body and its health conditions directly at the molecular level. This, in turn, affords them with the opportunity to access a greater understanding of what causes diseases and how drugs can be developed to prevent and treat them. Some of the flagship tools are being developed by Netherlands-based Lumicks’ whose arsenal include laser-powered optical tweezers that can manipulate single molecules, as well as an immune cell analyzer that can fine-tune cancer treatment programs.
Science in the war against disease
While those individual case studies are promising enough in themselves, the really positive news is the bigger picture of the industry. The hundreds of million drummed up by PacBio and Tessera are impressive figures in their own right, but pale in comparison to the more than $3 billion that was raised by SynBio startups in the first six months of 2020 alone. That’s a significant increase on the $1.9 billion that the sector attracted in the year previous – and in a period of austerity caused by coronavirus – indicating that SynBio research will accelerate in the future.
That optimism is especially vibrant for the medicine, pharmaceuticals and biotech industries. As research, understanding of the human body and the mechanisms of diseases advances, the medical field is looking at a revolutionary development, where overcoming diseases, from coronavirus to cancer and far beyond, has suddenly become a distinct possibility.
ILLUSTRATION: Image: National Human Genome Research Institute/Flickr
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