What does it take to transform a microbe normally found in the intestinal tract into a cancer-killing machine? These and other questions about the applicability of synthetic biology abound. For cancer research in particular, the field of syn bio could both reveal new insights into the disease and potentially lead to new treatments.
Despite exciting developments in synthetic biology, however, whether the NIH will found and dedicate a specific new program to this field remains to be seen. NCI and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences held a workshop in 2010 with an eye toward understanding the opportunities for biomedical research in synthetic biology, J. Jerry Li, M.D., Ph.D., Division of Cancer Biology program director, explained.
“We invited program managers from other agencies including the NSF and the DoE. As of 2010, those agencies had dedicated programs to support synthetic biology but NIH as a whole did not,” he remarked. “We asked ourselves whether it was time to put together a synthetic biology centric program.”
NIH held the workshop because recent advances in synthetic biology had created a receptive, anticipatory climate for this new field, Dr. Li added. J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., published work on the first synthetic bacterial genome, and the FDA had just approved Artemisinin, an antimalaria drug produced using engineered bacteria and yeast.
Dr. Li explained that NIH had used the investigator-initiated, nonsolicited R01 programs among its various institutes as the main funding mechanism to support synthetic biology research efforts and continue to “believe it’s the right avenue to get these people supported.”
NCI grants have supported research by J. Christopher Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioengineering at University of California, Berkeley to develop bacteria as cancer-killing therapeutics. Using bacteria to fight solid tumors is not a new idea. In 2001, writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators outlined the requirements for useful bacterial anticancer bombs.