The power of synthetic-based technologies to improve global human health 

Recent scientific breakthroughs shaping future health

Recent scientific breakthroughs including, synthetic embryos and engineered photosynthesis in mammals, shine a spotlight on the power of using synthetic-based technologies to accelerate innovation for human health. This topic is at the heart of our brand new conference, Synthetic Biology for Future Health (13-15 March 2023).

As we prepare to welcome the synthetic biology and biotech communities to Hinxton Hall Conference Centre, we caught up with our Scientific Committee members for their perspectives on this growing area, at the intersection of research and industry.

Yasunori Aizawa (YA), Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan; Sonja Billerbeck (SB), University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and Tom Ellis (TE), Imperial College London, UK, discuss what the future of synthetic biology, driven by innovative technologies, may hold, and share some useful advice aimed at junior researchers.

How do you think the use of synthetic biology-based technologies can improve health?

TE: Synthetic biology offers far more control over cells than any other approach, so wherever people are developing cell-based therapies – microbes in the gut, T-cells, stem cells for regenerative medicine – there is a great opportunity for synthetic biology to be involved, as it offers the best solution to aspects like precision and safety.

SB: Synthetic biology also holds promise to deliver affordable, but accurate, diagnostics for infectious diseases. For example: paper-based toehold circuits, and CRISPR-based platforms that could allow the monitoring of diseases in resource-poor settings, or remote areas or en-mass in airports. Plus, new capabilities in metabolic engineering and gene-editing hold promise to enable the cheap production of already approved drugs, including: plant metabolites via fermentation, rather than extraction from plants or chemical synthesis.

What future developments do you anticipate thanks to the implementation of synthetic biology approaches in medicine?

YA: Cell-based medicine could completely transform therapies used to treat our children and our grandchildren. At this moment, it is very expensive and only accessible to a limited number of people/regions. But hopefully, in 10 years or so, iPSC- and/or any other stem cell-based allogeneic cell therapies should make it globally accessible to everyone. From my perspective (as one of “the genome writers”), super-heavily engineered cells, which are now viewed to be risky, must be acknowledged to be safe and used in clinics in the near future. In my opinion, cells in which the dark matter of the genome is completely removed would be the easiest to test, and therefore possibly the safest cell modality.

TE: By the next decade, I expect all cell-based therapies will be dependent on synthetic biology to some degree. But I think it will go much further in the future, with the whole genome of cells used as therapies: synthetic ones designed and built just for that task.

SB: Advances in protein engineering and accurately designing proteins from scratch, will allow us to build targeted or personalised therapeutics that can cross the blood-brain barrier, or be switched on by light. In addition, I expect that the Design–Build–Test–Learn (DBTL) cycle can be fully automated, and that databases on functional parts, will enable more predicable bioengineering via AI-guided learning. As such, we will need less time to complete the engineering of a new microbe with a desired function.

What are the current challenges and limitations in synthetic biology research?

TE: The cell is a very complex environment, with thousands of interacting components, so unsurprisingly, it’s hard to engineer things to work the first time. This means synthetic biology research is still very hit-and-miss, and sadly takes a long time to progress compared to the speed of writing software or building new smartphones.

SB: In addition to Tom’s thoughts, genetically modified organism (GMO) regulations, and uncertainty about their changes, is a roadblock for bringing SynBio products to the market. Also, scaling of fermentations, for example, to produce a probiotic or a specific metabolite, is a challenge that is not considered, but can become detrimental (especially for a SynBio start-up that wants to enter the production phase).

YA: We need more imagination to come up with ideas on what SynBio can do. In the history of technological development, imagination predates technology. For example, science fiction and movies have predicted the breadth of what’s possible from future techonology (both positively and negatively), providing possibilities of a bright future as well as disastrous outcomes. But it seems the situation is now the opposite: technology runs ahead of imagination. We need to chat with novelists and any other liberal artists more.

Do you have any advice to ensure successful collaboration between industry and academia?

SV: Discussing the key goals important to each party early on. Industrial partners might not be interested in publishing, while this is the currency for researchers in the academic space. A mutal understanding of need is required to establish balance for all those involved in the process.

YA: Academia should have a detailed understanding of industrial issues, where possible.. Specifically, the more solutions academia can present for addressing problems (or at least providing experiments offering the potential for solutions), the stronger the partnership. I know it is not easy because of IP issues, but from my experience in a start-up business, research science gives us simple solutions to many complex industrial problems.

TE: Enthusiasm is the key to a good collaboration. Our best collaborators in industry have been the ones that are passionate about the project, and excited to be part of the scientific ride on bad and good days.

Do you have any advice for early career researchers in this field? 

TE: Try to think of the world 20 – 50 years from now! Where will synthetic biology and society be by then? You will want to be an innovator and contributor to the world 20 years from now, and you will want to retire and relax 50 years from now.

YA: First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that we have to work hard! Plus, follow your gut feeling to decide whom you do and don’t wish to work with. People around you greatly influence your approaches and attitude as a scientist. The themes and projects are secondary, I believe, because your interests will change many times by the end of your career.

SB: Learn programming, as synthetic biology will continue to rely on creating and using big data.

Try several sectors and find the one that suits you best or switch between them.

Be open to a variety of career path, synthetic biology is a great field to be in as it stretches from basic discovery in the academic space to the entrepreneurial sector to big companies. It gives a lot of room for communication, regulation and societal debate.

Sonja Billerbeck (SB), University of Groningen, the Netherlands

If you want to hear more about the latest advances, and the future direction of this exciting and growing field, join us for Synthetic Biology for Future Health at our Hinxton Hall Conference Centre, Wellcome Genome Campus, UK, on 13-15 March 2023. Participate in discussion on how synthetic-based technologies deliver innovations across clinical health applications, and drive improved global health systems with differing priorities.

You will hear a variety of talks on:

  • Engineering gene regulation
  • Cells engineered as therapies
  • Designing synthetic biomolecules
  • Socio-Technological readiness and entrepreneurship
  • Infectious disease and biosensing
  • Synthetic genomes, cells, and multicellularity

You will also have the chance to network with leading researchers and industry members in synthetic biology, biotechnology and medical sciences.

Register for an in-person place by 14 February!

Virtual places are available until 6 March.

You can find further details on the programme and registration here

Back to top Back to top