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How Synthetic Biology Is Changing Our World

Written by: Chris Buck, Head of Capital Markets, ROBO GlobalIn Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, “matter compilers” create all the basic necessities—food, blankets, and even water—at the touch of a button using streams of energy and basic molecules. A futuristic idea back in 1995, the concept has recently made the leap from fiction to reality thanks to significant advancements in the field of synthetic biology.What is synthetic biology? Put simply, it’s the process of redesigning organisms by engineering them to have new abilities. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Jason Kelly, CEO at Ginkgo Bioworks, explained the process like this:“Think of a cell. It’s kind of like a little machine that runs on digital code, very similar to a computer, except in this case the code—instead of zeros and ones, it’s A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s. The cell reads that code, and it does all the things that a cell does in our body—or a bird’s body or bacteria in a river. They’re all running on that digital code. We can read that code with DNA sequencing and can write that code with DNA synthesis or DNA printing. If you can read and write that code, and you have a machine that’ll run it, that’s programming. So synthetic biology is programming cells like we program computers, by changing the DNA code inside them.”That’s precisely what Ginkgo Bioworks and other researchers and companies around the world are doing today to apply synthetic biology to help solve some of our biggest challenges in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, petrochemicals, agriculture, and more. The vast extent of synthetic biology’s reach is precisely why it is becoming an area of focus within ROBO Global’s Healthcare Technology & Innovation Index (HTEC). Here is a quick look at how this fascinating science is already changing our world:

Synthetic ‘meats’

Beyond Meat grabbed headlines and much investor attention when it closed its first day of trading up 163%. And while plant-based meats like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, makers of the Impossible Burger, may currently have the largest brand recognition at the moment, synthetic biology is being put to work by a host of other companies to deliver on the promise of meat-like foods that are not only healthier, but that also reduce the greenhouse emissions associated with traditional animal-based agriculture.Despite the clinical-sounding name, synthetic proteins are attractive to a growing target market, including vegetarians and vegans, animal welfare advocates, and anyone concerned about their own health and the health of the planet. Memphis Meats makes meat, seafood, and poultry in the lab using real animal cells—a process that eliminates animal slaughter and significantly reduces the use of land, water, and energy required. The company announced last week that it raised another $161M in financing, adding SoftBank Group, Norwest, and Temasek to its growing list of high-profile investors. In October, Future Meat Technologies raised $14M in financing to build facilities to manufacture cell-made steak that it hopes to have in stores by 2022. And last February, Ginkgo Bioworks announced $90M in funding for its spinoff, Motif Ingredients, which uses synthetic biology to develop proteins that effectively replace animal-based meat and dairy products.According to Ginkgo Bioworks’ Kelly, the success of Beyond Meat’s IPO is a harbinger of what’s to come. “It proves that public market investors are excited about companies solving big problems in markets like food that haven’t seen serious technology disruption in a long time. Expect much more of that from synthetic biology — this is just the beginning.” [1]

‘Edible’ bacteria

While synthetic proteins may manufacture healthier foods in the lab, the healthcare industry is applying synthetic biology to help us live healthier lives by creating engineered bacteria in the lab. Uncovering new strategies for battling epidemics and pandemics is a top priority—and even more pressing amid the current outbreak of the coronavirus. Creating bacteria such as antibodies or vaccines in the lab and delivering them in an edible format could greatly reduce the cost and increase the speed of vaccine production in an epidemic. Luckily, rapid progress is being made. CHAIN Biotech is engineering bacterial “chassis” that can deliver living microbes into a patient through a simple capsule. The patient takes the capsule by mouth, and the synthetically engineered microbe is ingested to prevent and treat chronic diseases of the gut, such as inflammatory bowel disease and the bacterial infection called clostridium difficile, or C. diff. Prokarium, uses a similar approach, in this case using synthetically engineered bacteria as a delivery system for vaccines. The engineered bacteria retain their natural ability to survive inside human cells after being ingested, making it an ideal way to deliver and produce medicines from inside the cells in the human body.

Faster, better, cheaper pharmaceuticals

The insulin shortage is another crisis that has patients and healthcare providers desperate for solutions, and synthetic biology may hold the key to solving this challenge and many others facing pharmaceutical manufacturers thanks to its potential ability to shorten R&D timelines, increase productivity and quality, and cut manufacturing costs.It currently takes about $4B and 10-15 years to bring a new drug to market, and only 10% of the drugs in development ever make it to market. [2] Thanks to the powerful combination of machine learning and synthetic biology, those numbers are expected to shrink dramatically—and soon. Exscientia is one of many companies that are focused on making this dream a reality. The AI drug discovery company partnered with GlaxoSmithKline in 2017, adding $43M to the war chest in an effort to design molecules capable of attacking 10 specific diseases. The goal: to cut the time and cost of the drug delivery by 25%. Earlier this year, Exscientia entered a $25M partnership with Celgene to do the same for the drug maker’s small-molecule oncology and autoimmunity drugs.Synthetic biology is also being used in protein engineering, a method that drug companies have high hopes will enable them to develop and deliver new drugs to treat a wide range of diseases faster than ever, and at a much lower cost. The market is expected to grow at a CAGR of nearly 15% from 2020-2027. [3]

Synthetic biology is the future of healthcare

Synthetic biology has the potential to extend into nearly every industry. As John Kelly says, “It’s the core of how all things will be created.” And while how and where it is applied may well bring Neal Stephenson’s “matter compliers” to life, the most widespread applications to date reside in the healthcare sector. ROBO Global’s Healthcare Technology & Innovation Index (HTEC) offers investors exposure to this and other key innovations across the fast-changing landscape of healthcare technology and AI.

Related: Buckle up for Big Change With 5g in 2020 [1] “How delicious: Beyond Meat up 163% on first day of trading”, Synbiobeta, May 7, 2019 [2] “Machine Learning Could Make Drug Discovery Faster, Cheaper, Better,” Elsevier, November 6, 2018 [3] Databridge Market Research, January 2020