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Synthetic biology makes a difference in drug discovery

November 18, 2020

If you were there for the early days of synthetic biology, you probably remember it the way we do: a relatively small number of academic scientists toiling in labs to build key parts, like toggle switches, and tinkering with the earliest examples of synthetic genes. Today, that image is ancient history. Synthetic biology is now robust enough to be a mainstay of industrial pipelines.

In an article published in Technology Networks, Kirsty Maclean, Director of Applications and Customer Engagement at Codex DNA, offers a look at how drug discovery and development scientists are adopting synthetic biology to streamline their workflows.

Maclean notes that demand for synthetic biology tools has been driven by the massive increase in DNA sequencing data available to scientists in pharma and biotech. “The wealth of sequence data, paired with new genetic engineering approaches, has made it possible to design and construct exponentially more clinically efficacious targets,” she writes. “But translating all this potential into new drug candidates — while simultaneously achieving the goals of speeding up drug discovery and lowering costs — requires the ability to test more and more sequences and biological scenarios.”

That’s why synthetic biology approaches are being adopted for many points in preclinical, as well as clinical research, where scientists need genes, clones, or variant libraries. “One key use of synthetic biology has been the development of cell-free systems that allow scientists to activate and analyze biological machinery — without the confounding variables introduced by a live cell system,” Maclean notes.

The article goes on to provide specific examples of how innovative synthetic biology tools have been used for synthesizing variant libraries, T cell receptors as adoptive cell therapies, and knockout systems for mutation analysis. Maclean also includes a recent example from the COVID-19 pandemic, in which researchers developed several new vaccine candidates and began testing them in mice — all in a period of just two weeks. “With that kind of speed,” she writes, “clinical research teams could even consider developing region-specific vaccines that would allow them to respond to localized mutations.”

The examples cited were supported by the BioXp™ system, an automated DNA synthesis and assembly platform from Codex DNA that enables virtually hands-free generation of DNA constructs and vector cloning.

“These improvements are now bringing synthetic biology to areas of drug discovery for which it was never feasible before,” Maclean writes. “Continued progress on this front promises to speed the development and commercialization of much-needed new therapies.”

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