Scientific knowledge of the cell has grown by leaps and bounds. We can edit their DNA, change their appearance, and even adjust the output of their metabolism to a large degree. But the complex inner workings of these tiny biological factories remain something of a black box, and scientists are never exactly sure how a cell will respond to a given change. This presents a challenge for bioengineers, who lack the predictive power of other engineering disciplines. A civil engineer can calculate exactly how much weight a bridge will hold before construction ever begins. On the other hand, a synthetic biologist must grow and test their engineered cells at large scale before reporting any solid numbers to managers or investors.
Enter Berkeley Lights, a bioeconomy powerhouse poised to bring the power of prediction to synthetic biology. The Bay Area startup has created a new bioengineering field called digital cell biology.
“We use optoelectronics to engineer edited cells to make proteins,” says Eric Hobbs, Berkeley Lights CEO.
Whether used to develop new antibodies, cleaning enzymes, or biomaterials, the ubiquity of proteins in industry guarantees a wide range of applications for the company’s platform. By growing single cells on a light-controlled chip, Berkeley Lights can monitor exactly how they grow and use resources. This approach allows scientists to test millions of cells at a time, then isolate the ones that show the most promise.
Pharma and the Covid vaccine race
Pharma is in the midst of a technology revolution — led by synthetic biology — that is accelerating therapies and vaccines. At SynBioBeta 2020, Hobbs will share the stage with companies like Twist Bioscience, Ginkgo Bioworks, Strateos, and Conagen, who are transforming pharma by creating unprecedented antibody libraries, designing custom organisms for production, offering new cloud services to innovators of all sizes, scaling-up production, and finding that one-in-a-million cell.
Case in point: Berkeley Lights has partnered with the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center to produce antibodies to fight Covid-19. I’ve previously reported how Berkeley Lights’ precise workflow allows the company to isolate rare antibodies produced by Covid patients, which will be crucial to the development of any vaccine. Vanderbilt, along with AstraZeneca, is using these isolated antibodies to develop treatments for Covid-19.
The company has also contributed to the international fight against the pandemic. Earlier this year, the University of Queensland in Australia developed a promising vaccine candidate using their breakthrough “molecular clamp” technology. Queensland researchers wanted to use mammalian cells to produce their protein-based vaccine, but did not have a quick way to select the best cells for the job. Hobbs’ team reached out to the Australians and asked them to try the Berkeley Lights platform. Within 78 days, the Queensland vaccine moved from initial phase to clinical trials — lightning fast for a new vaccine product.
“Diseases don’t know borders, they don’t know nationalities,” says Eric Hobbs, CEO of Berkeley Lights, on the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s our duty to engage.”
How do we prevent a Covid-like situation from happening again?
While the medical and biotech communities moved swiftly to characterize SARS-CoV-2, and though we may see successful therapies and vaccines in record time, it all comes too late for those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19. With about two million known viruses in the world (a couple hundred of which could prove fatal), there is no guarantee that another pandemic won’t strike in the future. To avoid another period of great human loss and economic downturn around the globe, the biotech sector must establish the infrastructure, manufacturing, and procedures needed to rapidly develop cures for both known and unknown diseases.
To that end, Berkeley Lights announced in March the Global Emerging Pathogen Antibody Discovery Consortium (GEPAD), together with Dr. James Crowe and Dr. Robert Carnahan at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Dr. Erica Ollman Saphire at La Jolla Institute for Immunology, and Dr. Frances Eun-Hyung Lee at Emory University. This initiative aims to identify neutralizing antibodies that don’t just recognize a pathogen, but also fight the disease. Berkeley Lights can use its digital cell platform to screen and identify these antibodies in a day, rather than weeks or months.
Closing a successful IPO in the midst of a pandemic
Berkeley Lights went public in July following a wildly successful IPO that raised $205M — more than double the company’s $100M filing. Today, Berkeley Lights is valued at around $4 billion.
Though the IPO has a ritualistic significance in the startup world, Hobbs prefers to see its results as energy in, energy out.
“It is an execution process: hard work, late night, early mornings, weekends…” he said when asked about exceeding all fundraising expectations. “It was hard work, but the team at Berkeley Lights is awesome.” Hobbs appreciates the successful opening, which creates value for the company and its employees. He says the proceeds will help accelerate business development and make Berkeley Lights “the standard across the cell-based product value chain.”
A synthetic biology focus for real world solutions
Synthetic biology can improve all aspects of our lives — the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the medicine we take, the energy that powers our world — but its full potential will never be realized unless its applications are brought to market. For the first time, the bottlenecks and limitations have migrated out of the domain of science and into the realms of processing and manufacturing. As scientific advances continue to open up new possibilities, they must also be translated into ready-to-use products.
If the pandemic taught us one thing, it’s that biology can yield solutions as long as we come together and think of how to use it. When asked if he could think of one silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hobbs pointed immediately to the wonderful culture of collaboration that has emerged. “Diseases don’t know borders, they don’t know nationalities,” he said. “It’s our duty to engage.”
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Kostas Vavitsas for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about (including Berkeley Lights) are sponsors of the SynBioBeta 2020 Global Synthetic Biology Summit and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.0