Sunday, February 15, 2009

Biotechnology's potential barely exploited: scientists

by Jean-Louis Santini

Biotechnology's potential barely exploited: scientists AFP/HO/File – This picture released by the Seoul research institute Maria BioTech shows human embryonic stem cells. …

CHICAGO (AFP) – New research tools will bring a boom in biotechnology that will unlock the enormous potential of using synthetic life to cure disease and develop environmentally friendly fuels, scientists say.

"If you look at all the things biology can do with technology, we have not yet scratched the surface," said Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University.

The past 35 years of biotech development have introduced a number of "tremendous applications," particularly in the area of bioengineered drugs, Endy said at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here.

Research is now moving ahead at a rapid clip, with "geometric improvements" in tools used to construct DNA from scratch, he said.

And in the area of gene sequencing, it took researchers just six years to go from reading a simple bacteria genome to being able to sequence a human genome.

Last year, researchers at the Venter Institute built a bacteria genome from scratch, he noted.

"I bet we will be able to construct a human chromosome, and the yeast genome," Endy said, offering a six-year forecast. "It sounds a little bit crazy because it's an exponential improvement in the tools."

There is both public and private interest in making these basic tools more relevant.

"We are advocating now a national initiative in synthetic biology that would include in part a route map for getting better in building genetic material, constructing DNA from scratch and assembling it into genes and genomes," Endy said.

An open technology platform "where the genetic componentry is available for anybody who might want to start a biotechnology company" is critical to advancing the field.

"In the next month we will announce a public agreement as a new legal framework for sharing standard biological parts," Endy added.

An open platform could significantly reduce the amount of time and money it takes to develop new drugs, said Jay Keasling, professor of biochemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

Keasling is using a microbe to produce a lower cost anti-malaria drug to replace Artemisinin, a plant-based drug to which resistance is growing and which faces expected supply shortages.

"We anticipate in one or two years that the optimization process will be completed and that production of the drug will commence and have it in the hands of people in Africa shortly thereafter," Keasling said.

Meanwhile, Christina Smolke, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University spoke about her efforts to design molecules that go into the cell and analyze the cellular state before delivering a therapeutic effect.

"Our goal is to make more effective therapies by taking advantage of the natural capabilities of our immune system and introducing slight modifications in cases where it is not doing what we would like it to do," she said.

Smolke said she hoped to translate her technologies into intelligent cellular therapeutics for glaucoma cancer patients in the next five years.

"That's a very optimistic view... but so far things are moving quickly," she said.

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