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Synthetic and engineering biology - a powerful toolkit for discovery

13 May 2024

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Synthetic and engineering biology - a powerful toolkit for discovery

Reported by Hayoung Choi, CUSPE President, and Jacob Bradbury, CSaP Policy Intern (April-July 2024).

Engineering and synthetic biology was the focus of an event for CSaP’s Dowling Policy Fellows and policy makers. Academics from four different disciplines underscored the transformative potential of bioengineering while emphasising the crucial need for responsible regulation and vigilance regarding emerging biosecurity risks.

Developing vaccines from 'superglue'

Opening the event, Professor Mark Howarth from the Department of Pharmacology, University of Cambridge, introduced his academic and entrepreneurship journey of unleashing the power of biological substances using synthetic biology, especially focusing on vaccine development. Inspired by a naturally occurring sticky protein from an endemic virus Professor Howarth and his research group engineered it into 'superglue'. After stabilising and processing the 'superglue' for use, he focussed on the superglue’s application in vaccine development. This sticky system can facilitate the display of antigens on the surface of the vaccine, accelerating their derivatisation. At the moment, he is working on a malaria vaccine, which has entered Phase I and II clinical trials. Professor Howarth highlighted the exciting prospects of synthetic biology, which can further unleash the power of biomolecules by using natural evolution process and modularity.

Milestones of biosecurity risks

Dr Lalitha Sundaram from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge, led a discussion on biological risks. Dr Sundaram opened the discussion of regulation of gene editing and their limitations. While there is not one single document that regulates the field, most synthetic and engineering biology is well covered by existing regulation, such as legislation for biohazards and genetic modification. Dr Sundaram spoke about how regulation gave confidence to innovators that their products would have public utility, and therefore a viable market. Collaboration between innovators and regulators is facilitated by ‘regulatory sandboxes’, a controlled environment to enable testing of new innovations with regulatory supervision. However, some novel biosecurity concerns do occur, exemplified by a few recent cases of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) biology, often enacted by professional scientists acting independently in their own time. Dr Sundaram emphasised that while we should critically assess these risks, the vast majority of DIY biology users are entrepreneurs and are aware of safety and regulatory concerns. Attendees enriched the discussion by considering the development of AI and global perspectives in the engineering biology space.

Engineering plant resilience to stress conditions

Dr Jake Harris from the Chromatin & Memory Group, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, shared his academic work on exploring plant stress response and the potential of priming plants in preparation for future stress conditions, such as excessive temperatures. Dr Harris explained how harnessing biological innovations, like a modified CRISPR ‘SunTag’ to regulate transcription of stress tolerance genes, enables some novel experimental methods to engineer “plant memory”. While his work requires further validation in field conditions in crops, it indeed is exciting to anticipate more resilient crops in the light of climate change.

New techniques to study and control antimicrobial resistance

Dr Somenath Bakshi, Associate Professor at Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, outlined the global challenge of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), predicted to cause 10 million deaths a year by 2050. Dr Bakshi emphasised that AMR is not preventable but can be controlled. His lab uses synthetic microbiology to develop new tools to understand and control AMR. Looking at bacteria on a single cell level is one way to improve the prediction of how a bacterial population may respond to treatments. Using this approach, Dr Bakshi outlined how his lab has investigated the detection and analysis of persister cells, a type of cell that ‘plays dead’ to avoid being killed by antibiotics. He also described investigating the response of single bacteria to phage therapy, an exciting method to control infections using viruses that specifically target bacteria.


You may also be interested in our report from a Policy Workshop that brought together experts from academia and industry alongside policy makers and funders to better understand the opportunities and risks associated with future science and technology developments in the field of engineering biology. For the report, click here.


Image by the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash.

Jacob Bradbury

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Hayoung Choi

Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE)