More than 300 scientists will gather this weekend at MIT for the first international workshop devoted exclusively to exploring this simple idea: Approach diseases such as cancer and diabetes with an engineer’s mind-set, including thinking about cells as if they were software and hardware that can be rewired, debugged, programmed, and hacked.
Until recently, the audacious quest to build new forms of life had focused mostly on small-scale tinkering, such as building useful bacteria. But powerful new tools that allow researchers to edit the genes of mammalian cells, including human cells, have brought the field of synthetic biology to a turning point and a new emphasis on major human health problems.
“Every cell in the body has DNA and chromosomes and so on; you can think of that as the operating system of the cell,” said Ron Weiss, director of the synthetic biology center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the workshop organizer. “We’re thinking about how do we create additional patches, program updates, little apps. Over the last several years, there’s been almost an explosion in interest in what is possible in mammalian synthetic biology.”
Any therapies are years away, but possible future applications range from the far-out to the practical.
Pamela Silver, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School, envisions an extra, artificial chromosome that could carry custom-made genes to protect against disease or act as bodily sentinels, detecting threats. Weiss has built a biological circuit, a sort of biological computer made of DNA, that could be used to detect whether a cell is cancerous, and then unleash a lethal attack if it detects cancer. Others are more focused on short-term goals, such as improving the manufacture of vaccines.
Weiss hopes that the meeting will function similarly to a 2004 conference, Synthetic Biology 1.0. That gathering, also held at MIT, helped establish the field of synthetic biology — the effort to design and construct new biological machinery to change the capabilities of organisms — which has now become one of the hottest areas of biology.
The focus of much of the science has been on industrial applications. Companies hoping to reap the rewards of custom-built microbes have invested in it to build organisms that secrete biofuels or produce a key ingredient needed to make a malaria drug. Do-it-yourself genome hackers have been inspired by the idea that basic biological parts could be used to build new organisms.
The hope is that extending the techniques to mammalian cells will allow synthetic biologists to work on human health. The conference will include the traditional leaders of the field, some of them renegade engineers, computer scientists, or physicists who began working on biological systems over the past decade or two. But there will also be top scientists who use more traditional approaches to do research on stem cells, cancer, and diabetes.
“It’s better to build the community than reinvent the wheel,” said George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School and a leader in the field. “I hope they get excited about this.”
Earlier this year, Church published a paper in the journal Science demonstrating the latest in a string of new tools that allow scientists to precisely edit spots in the genome, making cuts and inserting new genetic material. The new technique, called CRISPR, is cheaper and easier to use than other methods. Last week, stem cell biologist Rudolf Jaenisch from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge showed that the approach could be used to rapidly edit the genome on a large scale, creating mutations in five genes in mice. The technique took only about a month, compared with traditional methods that would take more than a year.
The conference is a sign that the field is maturing and its tools are improving, said James J. Collins, a biomedical engineer from Boston University.
“Most of us who entered the field or launched the field were amateurs at best at molecular biology,” Collins said. Now, however, he has grown more interested in human health.
As the science has advanced, so has the debate about the safety and ethics of creating synthetic organisms. Over the years, various efforts have been made to draft guidelines for how synthetic biology can proceed safely. At the end of 2010, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued a report on how such research should be conducted. The Hastings Center, a nonprofit focused on bioethical issues, has examined the ethical questions raised.
Much of the worry has focused on the possibility that engineered life, such as a microbe designed to combat an oil spill, could escape into the environment and wreak havoc or that someone could use the tools to create harmful pathogens.
Mammalian synthetic biology is so new, said Thomas Murray, president emeritus of the Hastings Center, that the ethical conversation has not yet caught up.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t have a settled view on this,” he said. But Murray said he believes that synthetic biology will begin to have an effect on human life much more indirectly; long before synthetic biologists are actually proposing to alter cells in living people, they will have created cells that can alter human health by other means.
For example, it has become clear that health depends not only on a person’s own cells, but on many billions of microbes that live in and on us.
Collins, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is engineering probiotic bacteria, like the ones found in yogurt, that can detect molecules created by cholera. If the bacteria detect cholera, they would start churning out an antimicrobial protein that targets the germ.