26 October 2018

Cellular pharmaceutical factories

Ginkgo Bioworks will turn human cells into drug factories

Sergey Kolenov, Hi-tech+

Biological systems will produce the necessary compounds much more efficiently than production lines for chemical synthesis, according to the company. You just need to reprogram the cells.

Ginkgo Bioworks already uses biological synthesis to produce perfumes, fertilizers and other substances. This approach is more economical than the traditional one and is already profitable, but the company's ambitions are much larger.

According to the CEO of the company, Jason Kelly, during this century, biotechnology will allow the production of any necessary substance.

So far, Ginkgo has only worked with bacteria and yeast. Now the company is launching the production of mammalian cell lines – from rodents to humans. Such cells are in growing demand from pharmaceutical companies that use them to produce antibodies and proteins. And in some cases, for example in the treatment of cancer, cells themselves can become a medicine.

The company was founded in 2008, and opened its first factory in 2013, receiving DARPA grants. Since then, Ginkgo's production facilities have grown fivefold, and production has been automated. The mammalian cell production complex will be the fourth Ginkgo site in a row.

The company's work can be compared to the first flights of the Wright brothers. To overcome gravity, the inventors had to understand and tame the laws of aerodynamics. Ginkgo does the same with genetic laws. And, like early aviation, synthetic biology is developing rapidly.

Two years ago, Ginkgo would not have been able to put on stream the production of mammalian cell lines "on demand". Even mouse cells are much more complex than bacterial ones, and the synthesis of antibodies is more laborious than the production of rose oil. However, thanks to the acquisition of the startup Gen9, Ginkgo has at its disposal an effective genetic printer that "prints" DNA fragments up to 10,000 bases long.

Ginkgo does not plan to produce medicines on its own. The company will cooperate with small biotech startups researching promising drugs. Ginkgo support will reduce costs and achieve results faster. The first customers are already there: this is a small start-up for the production of medicines, as well as a large pharmaceutical company from Boston.

Another company that creates genetically modified cells to order is the California startup Synthego. Its goal is to make genetic research accessible to a wide range of scientists.

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