Sonia Jassi reveals how the biosynthetic industry must prepare for scale
The biosynthetic industry, especially those organisations working with gene-edited food, has long been seen as either too niche or too controversial to have real potential in the market. However, with the UK government in discussion around a new bill that may allow genetically edited plants and animals to be grown for food in the UK, it is clear that view is changing – meaning the industry must now be prepared to ramp up delivery.
Gene editing is an excellent way to ensure new plants and animals are produced with beneficial and hardy qualities, such as being more resistant to diseases and requiring fewer pesticides. With between 20 and 40% of all crops grown being lost to pests and diseases, the UK agriculture industry could hugely benefit from the prosperity that growing gene-edited crops will bring.
It is not solely in the production of food where gene-editing can be of assistance, and if the bill is passed, there will be opportunities to start exploring other uses, such as different materials for clothes. Companies have already started looking into these uses and are already developing innovative solutions such as synthetic clothing dyes and vegan leather made from mushrooms.
The passing of the bill will be a significant step up for the industry, and scale will be critical if these opportunities are to become a reality. However, the industry currently faces a number of challenges that are holding them back.
Changes To Regulatory Frameworks
The first challenge is around regulation, especially in cultured meat and plants. Currently, the EU’s rules around gene editing focuses on legal interpretation rather than science – which has restricted the UK’s agricultural research institutions from carrying out research. This is because it can be a challenge for organisations to know if the right regulatory framework is in place for research and development (R&D) where easy growing and mass production of cells is required – especially when they need to be tested with humans.
If passed, this bill will provide the beginning of more structured regulatory framework that will support the growth of precision bred plants and animals and potentially attract investment into agri-food innovation in the UK.
However, there is still the challenge of being able to scale production to a level that will make these products widely available across the UK and allow us to reap the full benefits of gene editing.
The Ability To Deliver At Scale
For the synthetic plants and meat industry to develop and grow, organisations need to be able to deliver products to market at scale. However, the environment that cells grow in requires very high levels of accuracy, with reproducibility and close control being critical parts of the process. This means enabling mass production is a challenge, as human error and contamination are both a risk when throughput needs to be increased.
This is where automation and robotics can play an important role. Scientists are talented, skilled individuals, but it can be impossible to manually keep up with both the pace and quality needed to scale development. With automation, it’s possible to run assays faster and for longer than scientists can, by using remote management to run assays through the night for example. This increases throughput and allows scientists to carry out R&D in other areas.
With automation, scientists can also be more confident in the accuracy of their results and draw conclusions faster. Automated processes do the same thing, the same way with the same results, and developments to cell growth and editing can be made with certainty that all other variables are controlled.
Leading cell culture companies are looking to distribute novel products to market at pace, and automation can be a powerful tool to bring a product from R&D to mass production faster, giving companies a competitive edge.
Embracing Change And New Ways Of Working
Another challenge to scaling genetically edited products is the culture change required to embrace automation. Although automation is often used at the R&D stage of projects, applying it to more areas and using it to scale production may be new to many organisations and teams – and a mindset that embraces change and evolution in the lab space is critical.
One way to address this is with a focus on training for lab scientists to help them understand the benefits of automating processes. It’s also important to start small, encourage uptake of new technology and then expand – rather than transforming an entire lab overnight. This is where modular automation systems can be useful – as they can be scaled up – or down – where required in a lab, both to meet demand from scientists and to match the physical space and layout.
Though this bill is still under debate, it is important to recognise that automation is likely to be an essential tool in scaling gene editing for any purpose. The flexibility and agility it provides will be critical to helping labs maintain the control and accuracy required to grow cells while still leaving room for company growth. Empowering scientists by removing the burden of repetitive tasks and focusing on automating workflows will prepare UK labs to face issues of scale and bring their innovative projects to market.
Sonia Jassi is Drug Discovery and Synthetic Biology Lead at Automata