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Dr. Keith Pardee
Assistant Professor - Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Toronto

Synthetic Biology: Building the Future of the Canadian Economy

Published on

Takeaways

  1. Biomanufacturing and bioengineering play a crucial role in the development of drugs used in pertinent treatments such as cancer treatments, as well as in vaccines.
  2. Canada can greatly benefit from its biomanufacturing and bioengineering innovations to become an exporter of medical solutions as opposed to being an importer.
  3. Multiple disciplines will have to collaborate to create value-adding technologies in order to help scale the biomanufacturing and bioengineering sector.

Action

The government has to position Canada as a global leader in biomanufacturing and bioengineering through funding initiatives, supports to researchers and entrepreneurs, and by coming up with a national roadmap on how to scale. The innovations and solutions from this sector will help the country tackle a wide variety of challenges in the years to come, from health to food security and environment.


What is synthetic biology, bioengineering and biomanufacturing, and how do they intersect? 

Synthetic biology is an emerging discipline that sits at the interface between biology and engineering. We are trying to bring engineering principles to biology. By taking the components of life such as DNA, RNA, and proteins, and assembling them in new ways, we are creating new functions. Those are tools that are used by members of the community to do things like detect contaminated soil, manufacture drugs and make drugs like the COVID-19 vaccine. There are a lot of applications for the tools that are coming out of the field. We are seeing a transition in the field from strictly tool building, where we are learning how to use the tools, to application. This past year with the COVID-19 outbreak is a great example of some of the outcomes of synthetic biology with RNA vaccines and rapid diagnostics being available. We are starting to see synthetic biology come into mainstream applications. 


How important are biomanufacturing and bioengineering for Canada’s future economy? 

We all know that the Canadian economy is heavily involved already in the bio space with agriculture and forestry. Biomanufacturing, or the bringing in of engineering biology, has an opportunity to add value to some of these commodities and diversify the market. This will strengthen what is already a strong position in the global economy. There are huge opportunities in Canada. The trick is now to leapfrog into the more technology-centered areas of research. 

“There are huge opportunities in Canada. The trick is now to leapfrog into the more technology-centered areas of research.” 

Canadian research is already very strong in a lot of these areas, especially in fundamental research areas like biology, chemistry, and engineering, and so it is really about being able to take those fundamentals and apply them to this new space of bioengineering and biomanufacturing. Hopefully, we will have some sort of roadmap on how to do that at a national level. 


How do biomanufacturing and bioengineering tie into the health sector? What impacts could this have on Canadians’ and global health?  

It is very intertwined and connected. The direction that health is taking is towards a category of drugs called biologics. These are protein and RNA-based drugs like we see with the RNA-based vaccines. Being able to discover and manufacture drugs like biologics in Canada is hugely important to Canadian health and to becoming a net exporter of these technologies rather than an importer in the years to come.  


What about the impacts on health that Canadians could really understand?  

Vaccinations are one that is probably top-of-mind for most Canadians with access to RNA vaccines. Cancer treatments with antibody-directed targeted drugs are an important category within bioengineering. In terms of diagnostics, all of those enzymes that run the polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based diagnostics that we are now very familiar with are all coming from biomanufacturing facilities in Canada and abroad. 


Does Canada need a national strategy for the development of biomanufacturing and bioengineering? If so, what role must stakeholders play in its design and implementation?  

Absolutely. Right now, the field in Canada consists mostly of independent researchers and so we will really benefit from a federal level strategy or a roadmap for biomanufacturing in Canada. Jurisdictions like the United States, the UK, Europe, and China have all done this quite a while ago, and their industries are reaping the benefits of this because of that. It is critical for Canada to develop a federal roadmap for biomanufacturing to ensure that we do not get left behind and to reap the economic benefit of these technologies. 

As an example of how to frame this in people’s minds, we have recently as a country embraced or supported the research around machine learning, and that is really led to a lot of innovation and research funding in that space. That will lead to a lot of new companies and it is also important for national security. The same goes for biomanufacturing. There are huge opportunities for creating new ventures in Canada that can create this, but it is also critical for our national health security and food security. 

“We need a national-level organization to link up all of the researchers that are out there so that we can speak with one voice.” 

The initiative that Ontario Genomics and Can-DESyNe are taking with creating this type of roadmap is absolutely critical. We need a national-level organization to link up all of the researchers that are out there so that we can speak with one voice and communicate the opportunities that are in this area to the government and to the public. 


Why is interdisciplinary research important to Canada’s future economy, and how can Canada stimulate more of it?  

I am going to use another example here, which is computers. As technologies transition from a state where they are very sophisticated, high cost, and specialized, to one where they become more commoditized, low cost, and available to everyone, that transition requires a re-evaluation of the whole technology. Computers started out in the domain of physics and math, and through Steve Jobs, IBM, and Microsoft, it became the domain of material scientists, designers, and a whole slew of experts outside of that original core technology expertise. The same thing needs to happen in biomanufacturing. To get biomanufacturing to a state where we can scale, be economically viable, and make sure there is accessibility globally, we need to take what biologists and molecular biologists are doing, combine that with mechanical engineers, fluidics, and all of these other companion disciplines, to build out the technology so that it becomes globally accessible. 


Does this create a multiplier effect? 

Absolutely. My lab now has a group of in-house mechanical engineers. Interdisciplinary collaboration is not just 1+1=2, it is synergistic effect so that you can really enhance the core technologies. 


Does Canada struggle to commercialize in the health sector, and what kinds of partnerships, collaborations, or investments could help?  

Absolutely. It is a challenge to fund ventures in the Canadian biomanufacturing space, much more so than it would be across the border in the US. That is really a matter of educating the investment community about the potential and opportunities in biology for ventures.  

“At a federal level, we need to figure out how to provide startups with specialized equipment for scale-up so they can reach that highly fundable phase.” 

In addition to capital for enabling commercialization in Canada, infrastructure is another challenge. Biology has a very unique set of requirements, especially biomanufacturing, for scaling up. The infrastructure required is very expensive and so to take a technology from a research lab to a company takes quite a bit of specialized equipment for scaling up. At a federal level, we need to figure out how to provide startups with specialized equipment for scale-up so they can reach that highly fundable phase. Another challenge is talent. There are a lot of talented researchers in Canada, but we share a border with the US, which has more opportunities. It can be challenging to attract the right talent. However, the “if we build it, they will come” approach will work. Canada has a lot of advantages. Today, I was on the phone with someone who is currently in the States, and we are trying to recruit them back to Canada for this very reason. There are a lot of challenges, but they are all surmountable. 


How would more investment and advances in biomanufacturing and bioengineering help us fight the next pandemic? 

We have some excellent researchers and facilities like the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) in Saskatchewan for vaccines, but it is all a matter of resources. You can work really fast if you have all the resources you need. Being able to be responsive to the next pandemic or challenge and doing that domestically just brings peace of mind. Having that capacity domestically brings a lot of peace of mind but it is also an economic opportunity because we could become a supplier to others for these technologies. 


Who and what would you pitch about improving Canada’s bioengineering and biomanufacturing sector?  

We will pick the Prime Minister because we will aim high. Synthetic biology and bioengineering have the potential to meet a lot of the global challenges that we are facing right now in Canada but also globally. This would include the environment. Biomanufacturing inherently has a low carbon footprint, using aqueous chemistries which makes it more environmentally sustainable. It encompasses health and food security—the bioeconomy can really support that. Finally, equity is another important issue that we are all very aware of and sensitive to, but biology is uniquely positioned with regard to equity, in that it is a self-replicating technology that only needs simple inputs like glucose, and so it is inherently inexpensive to manufacture.  

“Synthetic biology and bioengineering have the potential to meet a lot of the global challenges that we are facing.” 

For those reasons, positioning Canada as a global leader in biomanufacturing makes a lot of sense.  

Dr. Keith Pardee
Assistant Professor - Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Toronto

Bio: Keith Pardee is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto, where he teaches and conducts research in the Faculty’s biomolecular sciences area. He holds a doctorate in Natural Products Chemistry from the University of British Columbia and in Molecular Genetics from the University of TorontoHe was also a research scientist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. 

 

Organization Profile: The Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto is a recognized global leader in the fields of pharmacy education and research. It has nearly 1,000 undergraduatesover 140 graduate students, and over 180 faculty members. The faculty is housed in the Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building, a state-of-the-art 167,000 square foot teaching and research facility.