Interviewed at innovation Day, Cambridge Consultants’ Head of Synthetic Biology, Richard Hammond, discusses bioinnovation.
Richard explains what bioinnovation is, a relatively new term that encompasses biotechnology, innovation around governance and the rules of engagement. He discusses some of the highlights from recent projects, and looks at some of the exciting developments in the area of cell therapies.
Applying bioinnovation to create business value an a sustainable future
Richard Leyland: I'm here at innovation day with Richard Hammond, who is my colleague here at Cambridge consultants. He's our Head of Synthetic Biology. So first of all, I know you like to define the world that you work in using the phrase 'bioinnovation'. So could you tell me what you mean first of all by that
Richard Hammond: Bioinnovation is it's a fairly new word, and it's the best definition comes from the World Economic Forum. They define it as a combination of biotechnology, so innovation in the technical side, but also innovation around governance, the rules of engagement, and also around the economics and the stakeholders. It's an interesting concept because it brings together three very important things you need to consider if you're truly trying to use biology to solve some of the really difficult problems in the world. If you're looking to, say, address climate change or feeding people or new forms of therapy, you can't just look at the technical aspect, you have to have a broader view across those three areas. And that is encapsulated quite nicely under the word 'bioinnovation' – innovation in all those areas.
Richard Leyland: And is the industry cohering nicely around that definition? Is that how it's actually playing out?
Richard Hammond: It does seem to be, yes. It was interesting to see the WF using that phraseology in a recent report, and certainly, in the conversations I've been having over the last two or three years, there's a definite recognition that there's more to it than the tech. That's an important part of it, and deep into the science and the engineering and so forth. But there is a lot more to it than that if you're truly to use some of these ideas and attack some of these much more challenging issues – you have to have that bigger view So it does seem to be resonating quite strongly, certainly the conversations I've had.
Richard Leyland: You've been leading the synthetic biology function within the business for a few years now, what are some of the things you’ve been up to?
Richard Hammond: We've done some really interesting stuff in the last few years. Some highlights have been the work we've done with Catalog Technologies. That was around storing digital data into DNA. Actually taking the digital ones and noughts and putting them into the polymer, the DNA, for long-term storage. That's been a very challenging but great project, and some really great outcomes. We're writing data at megabits-per-second rates with the technology.
Another good example is bio-plastics. So in our labs at Cambridge Consultants, we're growing plastic, we have organisms that we’ve designed to make the plastic, and they're now doing that in our fermenters. We had the first batch finish yesterday, and everyone's very pleased because something has grown!
Richard Leyland: What's grown? You're worrying me, tell me.
Richard Hammond: Yes, well it should be plastic. We did it at a smaller scale and got some really nice results, but yesterday was our first attempt at a bigger scale. A lot of excitement in the lab yesterday, so now we start analyzing and what have we actually made here.
Richard Leyland: Wow, so that's as current as yesterday. Brilliant. OK, we look forward to learning more about that one.
So we're here at Innovation Day, you gave a seminar a bit earlier and there was a great phrase that I took from that, which is 'biology is technology’. What do you mean by that?
Richard Hammond: So ‘biology is technology’ is really a mindset. For a long time, biology has been a research discipline. It's about categorizing and researching and just trying to understand. If you take a slightly different view though and say: no, biology is predictable, and it is programmable, you can start to think of it like other technology disciplines. So we can control it, we can predict it, we can design with it, and we can execute functions with it. So if you start to view biology in that way, it opens up lots of interesting avenues for applications. Say we have a biological system and a mechanical system, well how do we find the best compromise between them? How do we actually try and make the biology do something different, which overall leads to a better outcome? So at a first level, it's a mindset really, it's almost quite philosophical, but you take the view: I want to use biology like other technologies, and the reality is that the current tools, the science of the last 50 years has now given us the toolset that you really can start to do that.
One example is the CRISPR cas9 gene-editing system. That came out a few years ago, it's a great tool that allows you to more directly reprogram, - that's a great example. Ok, I now have some level of control and predictability, therefore I can start to think of it as a technology that I can use and develop, rather than just a research project. So that's what we mean by the phrase 'biology is technology'.
Richard Leyland: That's interesting, it makes me wonder, what happens now? Where should we be looking for the next exciting breakthrough?
Richard Hammond: I think a couple of things. There's a huge amount of work going on in selling gene-therapies, the ability to use these tools to make changes to a person's DNA and allow you to start attacking particular cancers and immune system type diseases. In the last couple of years, those first therapies are starting to come out through the regulatory process to market. So over the next five years, there'll be many many more of that type of therapy.
Richard Leyland: I saw in the UK's National Health Service there was the first gene therapy on a live patient this year.
Richard Hammond: That's right.
Richard Leyland: So we've made some progress, what are the next steps?
Richard Hammond: So I think the current crop of therapies, quite rightly, are starting with the relatively easier targets. So, for example, the CAR-T, the chimeric antigen receptor T-cells are all focused around blood-borne cancers, leukemias and the like. Because it's mobile, moving around your body, the ability of cells to interact and for the modified cells to attack the disease is relatively straightforward - it's still an amazing thing, but it's more accessible. The real challenge is going to be solid tumors. There are all the other types of cancers where it isn't mobile, it's actually somewhere within the body. So a huge amount of research going on into that area and I think a good example of the kind of idea where people will be rationally developing these therapies targeted towards very specific cancers in various parts of the body to try and truly attack the fundamental mechanisms of what's causing that disease. So that would be one example.
I guess another one that we're keeping a very close eye on, is around the recycling of plastic waste. In 2016, I think it was, some Japanese researchers discovered this organism that was eating plastic bottles. It had evolved in a waste site, and it has started to degrade the plastic. A few years later, that is now starting to become a very real thing, you can take the organism, the enzymes it produces, and start to use that to degrade the plastic. But more exciting than that, it actually degrades it back into the constituent monomers. So effectively you take it back to where it started, and you truly can recycle it in your production process. So I think that's another big area to watch, the use of biology for materials management, waste management; true recycling back to where you came from.
Richard Leyland: An enzyme that can digest plastics sounds like a miraculous fix for one of the biggest problems the world faces. Presumably it's not quite as simple as that.
Richard Hammond: Not quite as simple as that, but it's a great example, and maybe this comes back to the whole bioinnovation theme. It's a great example of a technical solution that looks really promising. Maybe we have a way of very cheaply and efficiently reusing this enormous amount of plastic, that's fantastic. But then, you have to ask the questions about what are the governance mechanisms around that? What are the economics around that? Who's paying for that? Who are the winners and the losers? How does that fit in terms of the stakeholders? And how as a society are we wanting to do that? What level of risk versus reward are we willing to accept globally? It's maybe a good example of where you can take a biologically produced thing and ask those much bigger questions about how does that impact society, and how would that work at country, national, international level, to truly make that real. And just reusing that material because it's accessible, it's cheap, it works really well, and everyone accepts it as a good technology.
Richard Leyland: Sounds like a challenge.
Richard Hammond: We're working on it.
Richard Leyland: Richard, thank you very much.
Richard Hammond: You're very welcome