Synthetic biology: Shaping the future of drug discovery 


By Lu Rahman 

There are some exciting developments happening in synthetic biology and as a result the sector is highly attractive from an investment perspective. Using synthetic DNA to develop drugs and to better understand the toxic effects of them is a key driver for this market. BCC Research reports that the global market for synthetic biology is estimated to increase from $9.5 billion in 2021 to $33.2 billion by 2026, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28.4% during the forecast period of 2021-2026. This highlights its potential and underlines its appeal to investors. 

Just taking a small snapshot of the current sector shines a light on the depth of development taking place. Codexis, for example, an enzyme engineering company enabling the promise of synthetic biology, recently announced it had entered into an agreement with Pfizer for the supply of a proprietary high-performance enzyme used to manufacture a critical intermediate for nirmatrelvir, an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) in Paxlovid, Pfizer’s antiviral therapeutic, which is currently authorised for emergency use by the FDA for the treatment of mild-to-moderate Covid-19. With reports of the drug being prescribed to President Biden, the drug recently hit the headlines. 

According to Pamela Siwik, Vice President, Launch Excellence, Pfizer Global Supply: “Their [Codexis’] unique enzyme is an important element in the manufacture of Paxlovid and plays a role in supporting our efforts to ensure rapid availability of this Covid-19 oral treatment to people around the world.” 

In the UK, the value of this market has been recognised with a synthetic biology centre receiving £5.5 million in funding to support start-ups and SMEs. 

The National Centre for the Industrial Translation of Synthetic Biology, SynbiCITE, will use the funding to support businesses within the sector and to help strengthen the emerging UK bioeconomy. The centre was established in 2013 using funding from the UK Research & Innovation and has since provided synthetic biology start-ups and SMEs from across the UK with expertise, technical facilities, and business training. To date, the centre has helped 27 companies achieve a combined market capitalisation of £790 million. 

SynbiCITE will now extend its services to start-ups and emerging SMEs working within the synthetic biology sector. Facilities include advanced equipment fortasks such as DNA analysis, which enables companies to access the workflows they need to develop proofs of concept that allow them to subsequently build thetechnical capacities they need in-house. 

Professor Paul Freemont, Co-Director of SynbiCITE, said: “Over the last few years, synthetic biology has accelerated the rapid growth of a new generation of biotechnology companies focusing on diverse applications. This rapid growth is dependent on a pipeline of new and innovative start-ups with blue-sky ideas and exciting applications. This investment now allows SynbiCITE to continue to establish and support this pipeline such that the UK continues to become a global centre for synthetic biology innovation.” 

In the US there have been some interesting developments showing the value and interest of this area of science. Replay, a genome writing company reprogramming biology by writing and delivering big DNA, announced its launch with $55 million in seed financing. 

Replay’s portfolio of next-generation genomic medicine technologies aims to solve the key challenges limiting clinical progress, including the need for increased payload capacity and off-the-shelf cell therapies that substantially reduce cost of goods, improve production speed, volume and consistency, and expand the potential for genome engineering. 

Replay separates technology development from therapeutic product development within disease area-specific product companies. Each product company is co-founded by entrepreneurs in conjunction with global thought leaders in each therapeutic area. To date, Replay has established four gene therapy product companies, aimed at bringing big DNA therapies to monogenic diseases affecting the skin, eye, brain and muscle, and an enzyme writing product company to optimise enzyme functionality. 

Adrian Woolfson, Executive Chairman, President and Co-founder of Replay, commented: “Genomic medicine has the potential to transform the future of clinical therapeutics. Over my three decades of experience working in clinical medicine, academia, and the biopharmaceutical industry, it has become clear that we require a more robust and comprehensive toolkit of molecular genetic platform technologies to solve biology’s most complex problems and realise its full therapeutic potential. In Replay we have assembled a world-class team of entrepreneurs, subject matter experts, and cutting-edge genomic medicine and synthetic biology technologies into a coherent structure that will enable us to address medicine’s greatest challenges, including solid tumours and polygenic diseases.” 

Meanwhile, Ginkgo Bioworks, a horizontal platform for cell programming — and the biotechnology company Zymergen announced they have entered into an agreement under which Ginkgo will acquire Zymergen in an all-stock transaction that values Zymergen at approximately $300 million. 

This transaction brings together two complementary organisations that share the vision that biology can transform a range of industries including medicine. Ginkgo plans to integrate Zymergen’s core automation and software technologies for scaling strain engineering capacity into its Foundry, including Zymergen’s machine learning and data science tools for exploring known and unknown genetic design space. Ginkgo customers will also benefit from the expansion of Ginkgo’s library of biological assets following the transaction. 

“We have always had incredible respect for the Zymergen team and the strength of the technologies that they have built for cell programming,” said Jason Kelly, CEO and Co-Founder of Ginkgo Bioworks.  

“At Zymergen, our team has built a world class and innovative technology platform which will complement Ginkgo’s cell programming capabilities,” said Jay Flatley, Chairman and Acting CEO of Zymergen. “We’re excited about the opportunities created by combining our technologies to accelerate Ginkgo’s platform development to better serve customers, promote Zymergen’s public benefit purpose, and achieve our shared vision of sustainability and a world built on biology. The transaction also represents a compelling opportunity for our stockholders to participate in the future growth and upside potential of the combined company.” 

With growth for this sector on an upward trajectory, there is clear potential for its benefits within drug discovery. Many eyes are on the synthetic biology market, and rightly so. 

Included in the DDW Synthetic Biology eBook, sponsored by Evonetix

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