Archives for category: Synthetic Biology

This month we’re taking a look at the burgeoning engineering biology industry, with a series of guest posts from members of our recently re-named Engineering Biology Advisory CommitteeEvery high-tech industry is built upon essential supply chains and the UK’s engineering biology industry is no different, as Dr Zoë Freeman, Head of Operations at Synthace, explains below.

Engineering is built upon traceability, accuracy, reliability and precision, where a mathematical basis for obtaining valid data and basic metrology is prerequisite. Welcome to the world of synthetic biology, populated by a multi-disciplinary group of researchers and tech-bio companies who are turning biology into a fully-fledged engineering discipline. As one of the UK’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’ and the subject of significant investment and strategising, there have been great expectations for the synthetic biology field to start delivering the goods. A recent Royal Society event posed the question, Synthetic Biology: Does industry get it?

A number of UK companies have indeed been developing break-through products, such as Oxitec’s genetically engineered self-limiting mosquitoes, Prokarium’s Salmonella-based vaccine delivery platform, and Green Biologics’ bio-based renewable chemicals such as n-butanol.

Yet it is important to remember every high-tech industry is built upon essential supply chains and the UK’s engineering biology industry is no different. In pursuit of applying engineering principles to biology, a core of organisations are coming together to create flexible and fit-for-purpose services, software and technology platforms that include libraries of genetic parts, highly optimised and fully characterised protocols, DNA engineering technologies and more.

The great benefit of the engineering approach is the ability to ‘do biology’ more reliably, reproducibly and effectively and to use that ability to manufacture exciting solutions for health, food and fuel challenges. To realise that ambition, the less glamorous underpinning steps are about standardisation of parts, characterisation of practices, and metrology – basic measurement of biology.

  • LGC are developing more accurate measurement and characterisation methods for the synthetic biology sector, including SI (International System of Units) characterisation of transcript number, and working with Desktop Genetics on measuring CRISPR-mediated gene editing success. Desktop Genetics are also working with US regulatory and standards organisations on how to demonstrate safe and characterised gene editing.

Of course, biology is hugely context dependent, informed by any given combination of biological, environmental and temporal conditions. The movement towards standardisation and characterisation does not aim to underestimate that challenge of biological complexity; instead it aims to address it head on, using advances in computation and data analysis.

The Antha workflow editor for design, simulation, visualisation and automated execution of biological workflows

  • At Synthace we have created Antha, a software platform that makes it easy to rapidly compose and execute reproducible workflows on lab automation and analytical equipment in a very flexible way. Antha thus provides researchers with the experimental bandwidth to do the multi-factor experiments necessary to explore biological complexity.
  • Synpromics have been very successful in developing custom synthetic promoters for cell-type or condition-specific control of gene expression, with diverse applications including in mammalian bioprocessing.

With these foundations bedding in and collaborations emerging, companies in the supply chain are exploring new directions too, with some also starting to develop new products themselves. For example, Oxford Genetics formed with an interest in bringing standardisation to DNA and, having gained insights along the way, the company has extended into mammalian expression systems and cell line engineering.

The World Economic Forum defines the Fourth Industrial Revolution as being ‘characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres’. This revolution is starting with a well-equipped supply chain.

Earlier this month, representatives from across the synthetic biology community gathered at the Royal Society to take part in an open discussion – Synthetic Biology: does industry get it? The conference, organised through the Royal Society’s Science, Industry and Translation Programme, was co-organised by BIA CEO Steve Bates, along with Professor Ben Davis FRS (University of Oxford) and Professor Paul Freemont (Imperial). Speakers discussed the potential of synthetic biology to address some of the key challenges of our time, as well as the barriers to fulfilling its full potential. Read on for our highlights from the day.

What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary area that involves the application of engineering principles to biology. The field, in its broadest sense, is opening up a suite of possibilities for the design and redesign of biology to create new products and processes – advances in research and new toolkits could see the application of synthetic biology across a variety of industry sectors from pharmaceuticals to energy.

Improvements in the speed and cost of DNA synthesis in recent years have driven innovation at an exponential rate. Many international bodies predict that synthetic biology will have a significant impact on the economy, growth and jobs over the coming years, with the UK well positioned to play a leading role in the development of this burgeoning field.

A wealth of potential

Morning presentations from Professor Christina Smolke, Stanford University and Dr Jason Kelly, Ginkgo BioWorks both highlighted the strength of biotechnology as a manufacturing platform, offering nanoscale precision at continent scale production.

50% of our medicines are derived from nature, with 50% of those originating from plants – one obvious example being opioids. However, as explained by Professor Smolke, there are limitations to relying on nature directly to produce these and other products – a point also picked up by Jason Kelly when describing the manufacture of rose oil. Manufacturing with biotechnology has the potential to transform supply chains, providing a more cost effective and efficient route.

In an inspiring presentation, Dr Kelly shared his vision for the future: consumer biotech product launches (think Apple’s latest iPhone but for a synthetic spider silk shoe). From clothing made of bioengineered spider silk, to recreating the fragrance of extinct flowers, the falling cost of genetic engineering is opening new markets to biotechnology. And investors are interested – in the first half of 2016, over $900 million was raised by synthetic biology companies.

Synthetic biology also has the potential to catalyse the re-invention of industries and technologies. Presentations from Dr Andrew Phillips, Microsoft and Dr Jeremy Shears, Shell looked at applications from programming biology, to its role in the energy transition as we steer towards lower carbon and renewable energy sources.

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Credit: Royal Society

Does industry get it?

Across a multitude of sectors, there were some clear examples of uptake by industry on show at the conference. Multinational companies are becoming increasingly involved in the synthetic biology field, some funding research within their own companies but collaboration with SMEs and academia playing a more significant role.

Embracing this kind of disruptive technology can lead to great success for companies, but at a risk. Pfizer’s Dr Edmund Graziani emphasised the importance of driving internal innovation within a company – if not us, then someone else will capitalise on this opportunity. He sees collaborations as a useful way for larger companies to approach new technology and keep up with the rapid pace of innovation.

This was echoed by a number of the larger companies present on the day, including Dr Phillips, Microsoft who highlighted their work with BIA member company Synthace, and GE Healthcare who recently signed a collaboration with Synpromics, another BIA member. Dr Jeremy Shears also spoke to Shell’s network of research partnerships with universities, looking to academics for unique and experimental technologies.

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However, challenges to the wider uptake of synthetic biology by industry remain. These include the clear need to demonstrate profitability in order to displace existing processes; concerns over public perception and difficulties around the language and definitions used in the field. Critically, these barriers risk meaning that the full potential of synbio is not well understood.

So what else can we do to ensure the success of this flourishing industry? Persistence is key, it appears, when it comes to industry. And as synbio technologies begin to drip into the mainstream, building public trust through transparency, openness and dialogue from the beginning is paramount to its success – with companies such as the UK’s Oxitec already leading the charge in this area.

Find out more about the synthetic biology start-up scene in Europe here.

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BrisSynBio is a multi-disciplinary research centre that focuses on the biomolecular design and engineering aspects of synthetic biology, and has been established as one of six Synthetic Biology Research Centres in the UK. Find out more about the centre and its new Innovation Programme in today’s guest blog from Andy Boyce, BrisSynBio Innovation Manager.

Bristol is one of those cities that people move to and never leave. The people are friendly; the city is dotted with beautiful old buildings, giant painted Gromit statues and original Banksy art; and you can get high-quality organic falafel on almost any street corner. There’s a great start-up scene for digital tech and creative industries. However, despite some truly world-class bioscience research, there is a noticeable lack of biotech companies. I think that this may be about to change and that synthetic biology will be the key to unlocking Bristol’s biotech potential.

Like many other institutions, the University of Bristol has been riding the wave of excitement for synthetic biology. Off the back of some fantastic basic science, it was awarded one of the UK Synthetic Biology Research Centre grants from BBSRC and EPSRC. This initial £16M five-year programme established BrisSynBio, a multidisciplinary institute that acts as the focal point for over £70M of synthetic biology related research at the University.

At just over halfway through the project, BrisSynBio is in an exciting and productive phase. Researchers are generating high impact synthetic biology papers, and new engineering approaches have enabled a rapid translation from basic science to close-to-market products and services. It was this wealth of commercially relevant projects that prompted BrisSynBio to get in some dedicated resource (that’s me!) to accelerate these ideas to market and encourage the next wave of spin-outs, licencing deals and industrial partnerships. I’ve had superb support from BrisSynBio management and researchers, and after a few frenetic months we’re excited to announce our new BrisSynBio Innovation Programme.

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The deliberately ambitious vision for the programme is: (1) to develop a self-sustaining funding stream from BrisSynBio innovation activities; (2) to establish BrisSynBio as a high-profile centre for synthetic biology innovation with a vibrant industrial network; and (3) to foster a long-term culture of innovation at all levels of BrisSynBio students and staff. While these are long-term aspirations, we are close to reaching our first major milestones. Our first spinout company will be incorporated in Q1 2017, we will hold the first in a series of BrisSynBio Connect industry engagement events in April, and we have opened applications for a joint business acumen course with SynbiCITE.

We’ve been helped in our efforts by a University and citywide resurgence in excitement for innovation and biotechnology. BioDesign has been announced as one of seven new Specialist Research Institutes, which represent the areas where the University of Bristol sees potential for significant growth and international leadership. In addition, new Bristol biotech companies can benefit from the world’s top rated university incubator (SETSquared) and dedicated lab space in two new purpose built facilities (Unit DX and Future Space).

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There will be lots more coming in 2017 and we would be delighted to hear from you if you are interested in collaborating or want to know more about what we are up to.

Andy Boyce, BrisSynBio Innovation Manager: andy.boyce@bristol.ac.uk

This week’s video showcase comes from BIA member Oxitec.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is responsible for the spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases. Oxitec’s GE mosquitoes represent a paradigm shift in vector control. Find out how their eco-friendly and non-persisting solution works in this animated short.

Do you have a video you would like the sector to see? Contact us.

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Earlier this month we travelled to San Francisco for SynBioBeta 2016 – a great opportunity to meet and hear from some of the innovative businesses in the growing synthetic biology sector. It’s been 40 years since Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson founded Genentech in San Francisco in 1976, by expressing synthetic DNA containing the insulin gene in E.coli, and the synbio industry continues to go from strength to strength. Here, we take a look at some of the innovations on show at the conference.

According to Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, we are on the brink of the fourth industrial revolution – characterised by a range of new technologies that are “fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds”. The rapidly growing field of synthetic biology exemplifies this definition, developing world-changing technologies at the interface of multiple sectors.

Synbio encompasses a diverse range of applications – reflected in the variety of organisations in attendance at this year’s SynBioBeta conference. Sessions examined its application in other exciting areas of growth within life sciences including engineered cell therapies and antibodies, on which UK company Oxford Genetics took to the stage, and engineering the microbiome. Utilising and exploring the microbiome is arguably the hottest area in the biotech industry at the moment. In recent years, a number of companies have made advances in the engineering of these microbes for new applications – including using genetic engineering to make new antimicrobials, and engineering gut bacteria to combat metabolic disease.

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DNA storage was another focus for discussion, establishing a completely different role for the material which carries our genetic information. The vast amount of digital data we generate is outpacing the amount of storage available – we need more space. Utilising DNA as a storage medium offers advances in storage density and durability over current methods. There are still challenges to overcome to improve its practicality for use, with regards DNA synthesis and sequencing, but with advances in the biotech industry coming thick and fast, DNA storage is becoming a realistic (and necessary) alternative.

The conference provided the opportunity to showcase a number of different tools and technologies, with UK representatives in this space including BIA member Sphere Fluidics and their picodroplet liquid handling technology.

Synbio has a large influence on industrial biotechnology, an enabling technology that uses biological substances, systems and processes to produce materials, chemicals and energy. On the UK front the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) announced the winners of its synthetic biology accelerator funding at the conference, part of a $1.5 million investment for synbio projects. Among the winning projects were BIA members Synpromics, for their research with the University of Edinburgh which will enable to ability to switch on gene expression in specific tissues for gene therapies, and Ingenza, whose project with the University of Glasgow will develop a game-changing technology to monitor and control biotech processes.

The applications of synthetic biology are widespread and it was fantastic to see such a range of companies on show at SynBioBeta – and witness the growth of many regular attendees from previous years. This growth shows no signs of slowing, as new startups continue to spring out of incubators and accelerators, including the UK’s SynbiCITE. If you’re a startup or entrepreneur in the field, SynbiCITE and Rainbow Seed Fund recently launched Bio-Start to incentivise innovative early-stage companies and people with great engineering biology ideas. The not-for-profit competition offers the winner a combination of £100k cash plus laboratory space, a ten-week accelerator programme with mentorship, consumables and professional services valued at ~£100k. If you’re interested, find out more here.

SynBioBeta London will take place from 4 – 6 April 2017.

Today’s BIA member video showcase comes from SynbiCITEthe Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) for Synthetic Biology funded by the UK Research Councils, EPSRC and BBSRC, and Innovate UK.

As we look forward to SynBioBeta in San Francisco next week, this week’s video highlights a new £200k annual competition designed to bolster UK companies aiming to solve significant global problems through synthetic biology. The not-for-profit competition offers the winner a combination of £100k cash plus laboratory space, a ten-week accelerator programme with mentorship, consumables and professional services valued at ~£100k. Find out more in the video below.

As part of European Biotech Week, on Wednesday BIA launched a directory listing mentoring and training schemes available to help UK biotech companies build their next generation of leadership and management talent. Download Growing the next generation of UK management talent here.

Do you have a video you would like the sector to see? Contact us.

Bioscience is a fundamentally important sector for the UK’s health and wealth. Last year we published our report Celebrating UK bioscience: unravelling the stories behind UK bioscience success, which details just some examples of UK bioscience success. These are only a snapshot of the full spectrum of UK bioscience successes, past or ongoing, but help illuminate where UK bioscience is shaping scientific innovation and is delivering benefits to humanity.

Throughout the summer, we’ll be posting a series of infographics detailing the case studies from the report. This week we take a look at the Oxitec genetically engineered mosquito and how it can be used to tackle mosquito borne disease. 

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Download the series of infographics here

Keep an eye out for the next phase of our Celebrate project, launching at this year’s UK Bioscience Forum on 20 October…

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Earlier this month, the great and the good of the synthetic biology community gathered at Imperial College for this year’s SynBioBeta London, a key two-day conference on synthetic biology and its applications. Below, we summarise some of the highlights and key announcements from the event.

Now in its fourth year, the Annual SynBioBeta London Conference, hosted by Innovation and Knowledge Centre SynbiCITE, was as vibrant as ever with 600 attendees from the UK and overseas, spanning industry, academia and the investment community.

SynBioBetaLondon2016_2The synthetic biology industry has flourished over the last few years. Between 2009 and 2015, European synthetic biology companies raised over $900 million in private investment, of which just over $200 million was raised in 2015 alone. Further information on Europe’s thriving synbio start up scene is available from SynbiCITE’s handy ‘5 minute guide’ infographic.

This thriving industry was witnessed in the quality and quantity of developments being showcased at the conference. Plenty of BIA members were in attendance at the event and key announcements included the official opening of SynbiCITE’s £2m ‘Foundry’ automation lab. Funded by RCUK, the Foundry is at the core of SynbiCITE’s facilities hub and is specifically designed to support the commercialisation of synthetic biology. The Foundry has been created and built to operate as a ‘cloud lab’ to support synthetic biologists across the UK – watch it in action in this report from Sky News.

In another key announcement, BIA member Synthace announced a strategic partnership that will team their Antha language and operating system for biology with Microsoft’s cloud analytics and machine learning – a significant development for the London based company and the UK synbio sector.

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Elsewhere at the conference, Thursday’s panel session on responsible innovation included Professor Paul Freemont, SynbiCITE, and Beatriz San Martin, Fieldfisher, who is a member of BIA’s Intellectual Property and Cell Therapy and Regenerative Medicine Advisory Committees.

Investment is crucial to the success of a biotech company and was a key topic for discussion over the conference, including a breakfast in the House of Lords on Friday to top off the week. The synbio community and investors gathered to hear from host Lord Willetts, former Science Minister and synthetic biology champion.

SynBioBetaLondon2016_4Following the launch of the updated Synthetic Biology Roadmap in February, now evolved into “Biodesign for the Bioeconomy: The UK Synthetic Biology Strategic Plan”, Lionel Clarke from the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council outlined the next phase of strategic direction for this growing technology area in the UK. You can download the new UK strategic plan here and watch Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman MP launch the document here. 

You can look back over tweets from the conference on #SBBUK16.

SynbiCITE, the UK’s pioneering national Innovation and Knowledge Centre for synthetic biology announced the opening of the country’s first commercial synthetic biology foundry at Imperial College London. SynbiCITE’s Foundry provides automated end-to-end design, construction and validation of synthetic biologic components combined with a unique open-access and sharing software which allows researchers to speed-up innovation by sharing their biodesign protocols with different labs around the world.

You can see the Foundry in action in this report from Sky News.

SynbiCITE Foundry

Do you have a video you would like the sector to see? Contact us.

SynpromicsThe explosion in the field of synthetic biology is causing ripples across the biotech industry. In today’s guest blog, David Venables and Michael Roberts of Synpromics, discuss the impact of synbio on another exciting area of biotech, gene therapy, by reducing the cost and increasing the scale and efficiency of viral vector manufacturing.

Synthetic biology is a relatively new discipline within the biotech industry, having leapt onto the scene only a decade ago, largely to address specific needs arising in the industrial biotechnology sector. There have been many definitions put forward over the years, but synthetic biology is broadly accepted as being the application of engineering principles to biological processes to improve and exploit them for commercial gain. A number of small start-ups are leading the field, and there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit akin to that seen in the IT sector. The vision is that all biological parts can be standardised and taken ‘off-the shelf’ to build complex biological systems that can be used to improve upon various industrial or, more recently, biomedical processes.

The synthetic biology landscape in Europe

The synthetic biology landscape in Europe, SynBioBeta

Synpromics is a synthetic biology company. We have IP and knowhow in the design of synthetic promoters – stretches of DNA just upstream of a gene that determine protein transcription/translation efficiency. Our synthetic promoters are designed to enable the controlled expression of genes under specific conditions: in a specific place or environment, or in response to a specific biological condition.

At the beginning of this year, we were delighted to announce a collaboration with the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, to remove a major barrier to the development of the cell and gene therapy industry by reducing the cost, and increasing the scale and efficiency of viral vector manufacturing. The collaboration will use our synthetic promoter design technology, and the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult’s flexible manufacturing platform to create stable producer cell lines for the high titre and large scale manufacture of viral vectors. The work will be part funded by a £2m grant from Innovate UK.

Applications of synthetic biology

Applications of synthetic biology, SynBioBeta

Viral vectors are a crucial tool needed to modify patient’s cells to create a therapeutic effect. Established manufacturing platforms are limited by laborious processes, a lack of automation and low yields. This restricts the utility of viral vectors for the treatment of diseases where large amounts of virus would be needed, and has to date confined their use to local applications such as in the eye and to less prevalent indications, including orphan diseases.

This project will use synthetic biology to develop novel and controllable gene-expression promoters to drive the production of a much higher level of viral vector yield from new stable cell lines. This will allow the industry to produce vectors to much higher titres and with more efficiency, removing the current constraints associated with plasmid transfection of anchorage dependent cell lines.

For instance, these constraints particularly limit the manufacture of AAV-based viral vectors, where vector batches are currently produced from very low culture volumes (often only a few hundred litres). AAV is now the vector of choice in a number of clinical protocols as it mediates long-term gene expression, efficiently infects a number of different cell types and elicits a reduced immune response compared to previously used vectors. If AAV is to be widely adopted in the clinic then it is imperative that larger batches can be made in bioreactors to much greater scale (i.e. approaching tens of thousands of litres).

The project will run for three years, and will be focused on developing prototype cell lines to deliver industry relevant viral vectors, including Retrovirus, and Adeno Associated Virus. Synpromics will be responsible for the expression platform development with the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult responsible for process industrialisation and control.

This will be the fifth major collaboration for Synpromics to apply our synthetic promoters in gene therapy. We believe Synpromics’ technology will provide a critically needed solution to high titre, industrial scale, vector manufacture, a critical barrier in the gene therapy industry. The result of this solution will be a major advance to the commercialisation of gene therapies in non-orphan drug indications.