Our Plants Should Be Plants – The Health Care Blog

BY KIM BELLARD

It seems like most of my healthcare Twitter buddies are enjoying themselves at HLTH2022, so I don’t suppose it much matters what I write about, because they’ll all be too busy to read it anyway.  That’s too bad, because I was sparked by an article on one of my favorite topics: synthetic biology.  

Elliot Hershberg, a Ph.D. geneticist who describes his mission as “to accelerate the Century of Biology,” has a great article on his Substack: Atoms are local.  The key insight for me was his point that, while we’ve been recognizing the power of biology, we’ve been going about it the wrong way.  Instead of the industrialization of biology, he thinks, we should be seeking the biologization of industry.

His point:

Many people default to a mindset of industrialization. But, why naively inherit a metaphor that dominated 19th century Britain? Biology is the ultimate distributed manufacturing platform. We are keen to explore and make true future biotechnologies that enable people to more directly and freely make whatever they need where-ever they are.

He cites Gingko CEO Jason Kelly’s 2019 tweet:

“X doesn’t grow on trees” … biology is so much better at manufacturing than any human-invented tech that we use it as an idiom for free and abundant. if we all do our job well in synthetic biology everything will grow on trees. 

Dr. Hershberg asks, “So…how do we get to a future where everything grows on trees?”

That’s a great question.  Remember, although the first definition of a plant is typically about living organisms like trees, flowers, and grasses, the second definition is about industrial factories, as in “a place where an industrial or manufacturing process takes place.”  How do we transform our grimy, polluting, resource-intensive factories into, well, trees?  

That’s the power, the potential, of synthetic biology.  He points out: “Biology manages to adapt and grow everywhere and is capable of both atomic precision and enormous scale. In other words, we inhabit a biosphere that is capable of producing more than enough to meet our needs.”

Dr. Hershberg’s title “Atoms are local” comes from bioengineer Drew Endy mantra that “biology teaches us that atoms are local;” i.e., 

The leaves on a tree don’t come from a factory and then get shipped to where the tree is going to be and taped and stapled to the twigs and branches. The photons and molecules arrive where the biology is going to grow and the biology grows locally.

Dr. Hershberg expects that within our lifetime we’re going to have DNA printers that produce any desired DNA sequence, and “desktop bioprinters” that use DNA sequences to print proteins, which could ultimately lead to a “personal biomarker” that could, in Dr. Endy’s words. “enable people to more directly and freely make whatever they need where-ever they are.” 

That’s a “wow.”

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I’ll give a few examples of advances in synthetic biology in just the past couple weeks:

  • “MIT researchers have developed a new way to precisely control the amount of a particular protein that is produced in mammalian cells.  This technique could be used to finely tune the production of useful proteins, such as the monoclonal antibodies used to treat cancer and other diseases, or other aspects of cellular behavior.” 
  • Researchers from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and MIT have developed “cells engineered to compute sophisticated functions — “biocomputers” of sorts,” thuis creating “genetic “devices” designed to perform computations like artificial neural circuits.”
  • Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have developed “bionic bacteria” that can deliver cancer-killing compounds precisely to tumors, and, once there, “you basically have a little nano-factory that continues to release molecules that can be toxic to cancer cells,” says one of the authors.  

The field is advancing on multiple fronts, at dizzying rates – faster than we’re reimaging what we might do with it.

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Meanwhile, Stat’s Matthew Herper warns that “we’re not prepared for the next wave of biotech innovation.”  Although he, too, is a believer that we’re living in “biology’s century, he fears:

the biggest looming problem is that we will simply become lost and confused as to what works and what doesn’t, scuttling our own progress, wasting money, and missing opportunities to save lives. That’s what happens when new technologies in biology outpace our ability to assess them.

He worries that, in particular, our system of clinical trials is way too slow, way too expensive, and way too inconclusive to deal with the pace of innovation we’re seeing.  I like his analogy:

U.S. health care system tends to believe that inventing brand new gadgets is the answer to everything. The result is that we try to solve problems by building faster and more expensive Ferraris when what we really need are better roads. As a result, our sports cars end up stuck in the mud.

“Politicians and regulators outside the health care industry need to start to think about what success and failure look like in medicine,” Mr. Herper suggests, and “We, as a society, will need to change our understanding of what is true and what is not. The world’s going to be transformed — we can’t let our thinking about it fall behind.”

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Mr. Herper was making a very different point than Dr. Hershberg, but I think the commonality is that, while we’ve embraced synthetic biology/biotech in terms of industrializing biology, we still have not made that conceptual leap to biologization of industry.  How do we revamp, remake, our various industries – not just healthcare ones — to use biology as the core for production? 

As venture capitalist Tom Baruch predicts: “We’ll see synbio disrupt every industry, whether building materials, agriculture and food, chemicals, medicines, water treatment, and environmental engineering.”  

Dr. Hershberg believes that combining synthetic biology with the internet means that “the marginal costs and distribution costs of actual material goods in the physical world could come to approximate the costs of distributing software products on the Internet.”  In other words, “one of the major lessons of biology is that planetary scale distributing manufacturing is possible.”

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If you’re not paying attention to synthetic biology, you need to be.  If you’re not thinking about how it is going to change your industry, you’re going to be disrupted by people who are. And if you’re only thinking about incremental changes, within our existing conceptual models of what biology is and can do, then you’re not thinking nearly big enough.  

Trees as factories, for almost anything we want.  Get ready for it.  

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.



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