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Demystifying Synthetic Biology: Building with the power of biology

Technology today is defined by superlatives: we have the fastest cars, the best medicine, and the most advanced communication tools ever known. Yet despite humanity’s technological progress, we face serious global challenges like climate change, food and health inequality, and a growing population. How can we meet even basic demands for food, clothing, and medicine in a world that’s rapidly growing and developing, without doing more harm to the environment in the process? Synthetic biology can help address these existing and emerging global challenges.

At its core, synthetic biology – also known as engineering biology or biodesign – has a straightforward mission: to build the foundation of a bio-based, sustainable economy. Like many growing fields of science, it has generated a lot of attention, resulting in myths and gaps in expectation that we aim to address here. This is the first of a blog series where Antheia will share what synthetic biology means to us, and how it is solving real-world problems.

What is Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic biology is essentially using the power of biology to make a product or even create an entirely new bio-based compound. Though the term was first coined in the early 1900s, what we know as ‘synthetic biology’ came about in the early 2000s – the result of five decades of advancement in molecular biology, genome sequencing, and DNA synthesis – focusing on the design and engineering of bio-based systems to create novel compounds and materials. The field exists in contrast to synthetic chemistry, a process that uses chemical reactions (often petrochemical-derived) to produce compounds or materials such as rubber, and offers an array of advantages that we will explore in this blog series.

At Antheia, synthetic biology involves engineering a host organism, like yeast or bacteria, to make something that it typically is unable to produce. The giant technological leaps enabling synthetic biology became transformational tools, improving our ability to read, write, and synthesize DNA – the shared language of life – at an affordable cost. For some perspective on how much this has changed, the price tag on reading the human genome has dropped from well over $10 M in 2003 to around $1,000 today. Equipped with these game-changing tools, the precision engineering of microorganisms with synthetic biology took off.

The field is interdisciplinary, leveraging tools and technologies from several fields including molecular biology, chemistry, and engineering, and applying them to a Design-Build-Test-Learn (DBTL) cycle. This iterative approach allows the industry to develop products executing complex processes like genetic engineering and fermentation. The DBTL cycle is adapted from the precision data-driven world of engineering and lets synthetic biologists harness the power of biology by precisely controlling microorganism engineering and bioprocess development. Synthetic biology as a practice has also embraced wider technologies like automation in the form of liquid handling robots and machine learning. These tools help rapidly scale the DBTL cycle and are accelerating product optimization towards manufacturing.

A Not-So-New Idea

These technologies proved themselves decades ago in therapeutics. In the 1970s, diabetics were treated with insulin extracted from pig pancreas glands, but this was extremely inefficient. A single pound of insulin required 23,500 animals. Manufacturers Eli Lilly needed 56 million animals per year to meet the growing demand in the US alone, so they turned to Genentech for a synthetic insulin solution. The Genentech team not only managed to create synthetic human insulin – one that was better tolerated by patients than the pig-derived insulin – but they also found a way to manufacture it in commercially relevant quantities. Using E. coli bacteria as a microbial factory, they replaced the trainloads of pig pancreases previously required to meet the insulin demand for diabetes patients.

A similar story unfolded for antibiotics during the Golden Age of Antibiotics from the 1950s to the 1970s. While a plethora of natural antibiotics were discovered in bacteria and fungi, including penicillin and other clinically relevant classes such as macrolides and cephalosporins, their manufacture relied on optimizing fermentation processes as well as genetic manipulation to increase yields. Early antibiotics were compromised by antibiotic resistance which developed quickly as genes encoding resistance to these natural products spread rapidly – penicillin resistance was first detected a decade after its discovery and before it was clinically approved. Cross-breeding, genetic manipulation, and chemical augmentation helped give rise to new classes of semi-synthetic and synthetic antibiotics like azoles and quinolones that we rely on today to treat antibiotic-resistant infections.

Amino acids – the building blocks of proteins and other biologically important precursor compounds – also received a boost from biomanufacturing. These building blocks are critical components of therapeutics, cleaning products, and food ingredients. Initially, amino acids were produced by chemical synthesis, but this resulted in two mirrored forms of the amino acid in equal amounts – the L-form, the active ingredient used by most life-forms, and the unspecific D-form which is often biologically inactive or causes adverse reactions and required further purification to separate. Biosynthesis by fermentation or biologically-derived enzymes became attractive alternatives to chemical synthesis, creating just one of the L or D forms depending on the metabolic pathway or enzyme specificity and so saving on purification costs. L-Alanine is an attractive target today due to its unique properties as a low-calorie sweetener and the rising demand for protein supplements.

Here, from this very definition of synthetic biology, you can see why it is so fascinating – and far too big a topic to cover in a single blog. This series digs deeper into what synthetic biology is all about, responding to pressing questions: Is synthetic biology scalable? What products on the market are using this technology? How do innovative technologies like machine learning or automation help? In our upcoming blogs, we discuss the myths and misconceptions that Antheia hears most in this field. Join us as our experts unravel the mysteries behind synthetic biology – a field brimming with potential and possibility.

Richard Sherwin

Head of Commercialization

Richard is an industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience in the KSM, API, and intermediate markets. He is responsible for leading the commercialization and revenue generation for Antheia’s robust pipeline of products. Richard brings an exceptional track record of leading international sales teams, driving revenue growth, building strategic partnerships, and delivering innovative products to market, including ANDA and NDA developments. Richard led commercial efforts at some of the leading global pharmaceutical companies and most recently, built his own consultancy business advising a range of clients, including $1B divisions of major multinationals.

Appropriate regulatory submissions will be prepared and submitted to support Antheia’s customers who need to reference and access necessary process-related information.

Yihui Zhu, PhD

Head of Fermentation

Yihui leads the fermentation team at Antheia. With over 25 years of hands-on experience in the field, he brings in-depth knowledge and expertise in microbial metabolism and fermentation process development. He is also skilled in developing comprehensive fermentation data collection, analysis, and visualization systems. Prior to joining Antheia, he served as a fermentation lead at Intrexon and Codexis where he successfully built fermentation labs and teams and led multiple biofuel and biochemical projects to reach stretch milestones and tech transfer. Yihui is passionate about the potential of fermentation and is dedicated to advancing the field through innovative research and development.

Yen-Hsiang Wang, PhD

Head of Strategy, Partnerships, and Finance

Yen-Hsiang leads strategy, partnerships and finance at Antheia. He completed his M.S. and Ph.D. in Bioengineering at Stanford, with extensive research experience in synthetic biology, metabolic engineering and computational modeling. Before joining Antheia, he worked at McKinsey and Tencent with a strong focus in corporate strategy and big data/advanced analytics. At Tencent, he served as Director of Strategy and Business Development for the AI Lab, leading corporate initiatives in healthcare AI/ML applications and commercialization. He also served in AI4H (Artificial Intelligence for Health), a collaboration between WHO and ITU, to establish global standards for AI in healthcare.

Audrey Wang

Head of Financial Planning and Analysis

Audrey leads financial planning and analysis at Antheia. With an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis, Audrey is passionate about leveraging financial analysis, digital technology, and data analytics to guide companies in making optimal investments and strategic business decisions. Audrey has a decade of experience in helping companies solve unique problems and creating long-term impact with unconventional approaches. Before joining Antheia, she was at Vir Biotechnology and Merck where she led various FP&A workstreams, including investment valuation, asset prioritization, and manufacturing sites operation finance support. Audrey completed CFA Level II and passed the U.S. CPA exam in 2011.

Antonij Tjahjadi, CPA

Head of Accounting

Antonij Tjahjadi leads accounting at Antheia and holds active CPA license. He joined Antheia with more than 20 years of experience in corporate accounting, bringing deep expertise in ramping up accounting operations for start-up companies, SEC reporting/technical accounting, and SOX implementation efforts. Before joining Antheia, he held various leading roles in both public and private company settings, including directing accounting functions at Ambys Medicines, where he successfully implemented Netsuite with Point Purchasing integration and set up various accounting policies and processes, and played a key role in the initial public offering of Nutanix, Inc.

Ken Takeoka

Head of Biology

Ken leads the Biology team at Antheia, which incorporates both strain and protein engineering functions. He has more than 16 years of experience in the synthetic biology field, working with leading companies, including Amyris and Novartis. One of his passions is molecular biology tool development and he previously worked to build the foundation for the automated strain engineering pipeline at Amyris. At Novartis, he modernized the molecular biology techniques and established a platform to model mechanisms of antibiotic resistance in a range of organisms.

Suzanne Sato

Head of Downstream Processing

Suzy leads downstream chemistry processes at Antheia. She has 19 years of experience in process development, including route development through synthetic chemistry and scale-up of small molecule APIs for GPCR targets under cGMP for Phase I-III trials. Before joining Antheia, Suzy led a full DSP team at Amyris where she successfully pivoted developments from biofuels hydrocarbon products to pharmaceutical intermediate, flavor, fragrance and nutraceutical products. She led a team that scaled 11 products and took five products to commercial manufacturing.

Farrah Pulce, PMP

Head of Project Management

Farrah leads program and project management at Antheia. She has over 20 years of experience leading program and project management, operations, and engineering for companies across the CPG, aerospace, and automotive industries. Prior to joining Antheia, Farrah implemented and led the sustaining program management team at Impossible Foods. She also led product operations, project management, and cost optimization at Blue Bottle Coffee and Tyson Foods to develop and commercialize new products. As a certified project management professional (PMP), Farrah has a proven record of successful project delivery, improving project management practices, and building collaborative teams.

Jordyn Lee

Head of Communications

Jordyn leads communications and external affairs at Antheia. She brings a decade of multidisciplinary communications experience in helping companies make complex science and technology accessible to broad audiences, all while maintaining technical accuracy and integrity. She has a passion for visionary storytelling and translating impact across the entire communications ecosystem – her work has spanned from public relations to corporate communications to marketing. Jordyn has served as an advisor to a number of different life sciences companies and most recently led corporate communications at Amyris.

Ben Kotopka, PhD

Head of Data Science

As Head of Data Science at Antheia, Ben manages in-house software development and external partnerships for storing and interpreting research data, executing bioinformatics analyses, and streamlining business processes. Prior to Antheia, Ben worked as an academic researcher at the intersection of machine learning, bioinformatics, and synthetic biology. Following this, as an entrepreneur and consultant, he developed and deployed data science solutions for biotechnology applications ranging from metabolomics-driven compound discovery to MRI segmentation.

Guerin Kob

Head of Supply Chain

Guerin is responsible for leading the design, development, management and improvement of Antheia’s end-to-end global supply chain. He has over 15 years of experience leading high-performing supply chain and procurement teams at leading biotechnology and specialty chemical companies, with extensive experience in process development and end-to-end supply chain optimization. Prior to joining Antheia, Guerin served as Senior Director of Global Supply Chain for Sumitomo Chemical’s biotechnology division with Valent Biosciences, where he led the end-to end supply chain including procurement, logistics and distribution, integrated business planning, materials management, customer service, and supply planning functions globally.

Pavel Aronov, PhD

Head of Bioanalytics

Pavel leads the Bioanalytics team at Antheia. He has 20 years of experience in analytical and clinical chemistry, mass spectrometry, chromatography, and metabolomics. Pavel built and led the original Chemistry and Analytics team at Impossible Foods enabling strain development, fermentation, DSP, regulatory, QC, and scale-up of leghemoglobin biomanufacturing. During his academic career at UC Davis and Stanford University Pavel developed a vitamin D assay used by all major clinical diagnostics laboratories and pioneered metabolomics studies to investigate kidney disease and microbiome.

Jesse Ahrendt

Head of Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs

Jesse has more than 25 years of experience in regulatory affairs, quality systems, manufacturing quality, and regulated industries, ranging from early- to late-stage pharmaceuticals, biomanufacturing, consumer care, and medical devices. He has supported global product launches and the underlying quality supply chain components in industries that require strict adherence to internationally accepted quality standards. Before Antheia, he led quality efforts at Zymergen and Sandoz, and supported many global pharmaceutical companies during his time in Biotech Consulting at NSF International, all to bring quality to the forefront in manufacturing, standardize global processes, and support customer regulatory requirements.

Heidi Pucel

Chief People Officer

Heidi is a results-driven human resources executive and HR business partner who leverages decades of experience in empowering, motivating, and inspiring to drive transformation within high-performing and rapidly-growing workforces. A certified executive coach and passionate advocate for people-oriented solutions, Pucel serves as a partner to executive teams to design programs that support employee development, engagement, and recruitment and retention. Pucel most recently served as Chief People Officer for Countsy, where she worked as an interim HR executive for clients in the biotechnology and software industries, such as Ceribell and Tune Therapeutics.

Zack McGahey

Chief Operating Officer

Zack is a leading executive in operations management, specializing in bioprocess engineering and manufacturing management. He has over 20 years of experience leading manufacturing functions for companies across the pharmaceutical, synthetic biology, diagnostics, and automotive industries. Before joining Antheia, Zack was VP of manufacturing and capex project management at Zymergen. He also gained experience managing commercial scale facilities operations for Tesla, where he was responsible for managing 10 million square feet of factory, lab and warehouse space during the Model 3 ramp.

Kristy Hawkins, PhD

Co-Founder & CSO

Kristy has over 20 years of experience in the field of synthetic biology, focusing on yeast metabolic engineering for the production of small molecules. She did the founding work on the benzylisoquinoline alkaloid pathway during her graduate studies and gained valuable industry experience at Amyris and Lygos. Kristy is an expert in tool development, high-throughput screening, and host strain and heterologous pathway engineering.

Christina Smolke, PhD

Co-Founder & CEO

Christina is a pioneer in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering, where she has over 20 years of experience. As Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering at Stanford University, her laboratory led the breakthrough research to engineer baker’s yeast to produce some of the most complex and valuable medicines known. Under her leadership, Antheia’s synthetic biology platform enables new possibilities for drug discovery and efficient, sustainable, transparent, and on-demand drug manufacturing at scale. Her vision and accomplishments have garnered numerous awards, including the Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub Investigator, NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, Nature’s 10, Novozymes Award for Excellence in Biochemical Engineering, and TR35 Award.

Antheia hosts U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to showcase the impact of biotechnology innovation

Appropriate regulatory submissions will be prepared and submitted to support Antheia’s customers who need to reference and access necessary process-related information.