Synthetic biology is an emerging life science that applies engineering principles to biology to create new parts and systems. In drug discovery, synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize medical treatment by creating on-demand molecules.
On-demand molecules context
Metabolic engineering allows scientists to use engineered cells to create new and sustainable molecules, such as renewable biofuels or cancer-preventing drugs. With the many possibilities that metabolic engineering offers, it was considered one of the “Top Ten Emerging Technologies” by the World Economic Forum in 2016. In addition, industrialized biology is expected to help develop renewable bioproducts and materials, improve crops, and enable new biomedical applications.
Synthetic or lab-created biology’s primary goal is to use engineering principles to improve genetic and metabolic engineering. Synthetic biology also involves non-metabolic tasks, such as genetic modifications that eliminate malaria-bearing mosquitoes or engineered microbiomes that could potentially replace chemical fertilizers. This discipline is rapidly growing, supported by advancements in high-throughput phenotyping (the process of assessing genetic makeup or traits), accelerating DNA sequencing and synthesis capabilities, and CRISPR-enabled genetic editing.
As these technologies advance, so do researchers’ capabilities to create on-demand molecules and microbes for all kinds of research. In particular, machine learning (ML) is an effective tool that can fast-track the creation of synthetic molecules by predicting how a biological system will behave. By comprehending the patterns in experimental data, ML can supply predictions without a need for an intensive understanding of how it works.
On-demand molecules exhibit the most potential in drug discovery. A drug target is a protein-based molecule that plays a role in causing disease symptoms. Drugs act on these molecules to change or stop functions that lead to disease symptoms. To find potential drugs, scientists often use the reverse method, which studies a known reaction to determine which molecules are involved in that function. This technique is called target deconvolution. It requires complex chemical and microbiological studies to pinpoint which molecule performs the desired function.
Synthetic biology in drug discovery enables scientists to design novel tools to investigate disease mechanisms on a molecular level. One way to do this is through designing synthetic circuits, which are living systems that can provide insight into which processes are taking place at the cellular level. These synthetic biology approaches to drug discovery, known as genome mining, have revolutionized medicine.
An example of a company providing on-demand molecules is France-based GreenPharma. According to the company site, Greenpharma creates chemicals for the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, agricultural, and fine chemical industries at an affordable price. They produce custom synthesis molecules at gram to milligrams levels. The firm provides each client with a designated project manager (Ph.D.) and regular reporting intervals. Another life sciences firm that offers this service is Canada-based OTAVAChemicals, which has a collection of 12 billion accessible on-demand molecules based on thirty-thousand building blocks and 44 in-house reactions.
Implications of on-demand molecules
Wider implications of on-demand molecules may include:
- Life sciences firm investing in artificial intelligence and ML to uncover new molecules and chemical components to add to their databases.
- More companies having easier access to molecules needed to explore further and develop products and tools.
- Some scientists calling for regulations or standards to ensure that firms are not using some molecules for illegal research and development.
- Biopharma firms heavily investing in their research labs to enable on-demand and microbe engineering as a service for other biotech firms and research organizations.
- Synthetic biology allowing for the development of living robots and nanoparticles that can perform surgeries and deliver genetic therapies.
Questions to comment on
- What are some other potential use cases of on-demand molecules?
- How else may this service change scientific research and development?