Cells It’s taken 30 years of biotech, but synthetic biology can now engineer antibodies in the lab faster than the body can do it, with potential cures for everything from snake bites to a universal flu vaccine. Getty
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Meet The Synthetic Biology Company Engineering Your Immune System

For decades, the field of immunology was a black box. Leading experts in science and medicine had only a basic understanding of the powerful complexity of the human immune system. Everything changed in 1983 when a mysterious virus — later identified as HIV — swept through the world claiming the lives of otherwise healthy men and women. The hunt for a cure led to a more comprehensive understanding of the immune system.

This altered the course of drug discovery and development. Antibodies became a household name, and the insights gained about their function and formation led pharmaceutical giants to invest in therapies that manipulated the body’s immune system to achieve a desired therapeutic goal. This led to safer and more potent therapeutics.

Nearly forty years later, the fields of immunology and pharmacology are in the midst of another surge of scientific growth. Equipped with knowledge and tools acquired from various disciplines, biotechnology companies like Distributed Bio are redefining how pharmaceutical companies identify, design, and synthesize therapeutics.

“We are now able to engineer antibodies in the lab faster than the body can do it,” says Jacob Glanville, a computational immuno-engineer and President of Distributed Bio. “It’s taken us 30 years to get there, but we’re in this golden age now in bioengineering where we’re really able to produce these molecules in unprecedented speed. And that’s what’s so exciting about today.”

…we’re in this golden age now in bioengineering…

Glanville founded the company with two friends back in 2012. Unlike most other biotech startups, it didn’t seek traditional venture capital. Glanville and his team created a software platform on Amazon Cloud that let people around the world do computational immunology. They were profitable from the get-go. 
Distributed Bio then used its platform and cash to build a powerful antibody discovery and optimization lab. “We started licensing out not just on the data, but the ability to actually engineer new medicines,” says Glanville. “That’s when our company really started growing much faster because that was worth a lot more. That bootstrapped us to the point where we’re producing therapeutics, which is where we are now.”With these cool technologies, the company is now a provider for the likes of Pfizer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Gilead, Teva — a who’s who of pharma companies. And the future for antibody drugs is looking good. Today, 30% of prescription drugs in the market are antibody therapeutics. But Glanville points out that it’s taken 30 years for the pharmaceutical industry to discover how to manipulate antibodies.

“If you can make an antibody, it’s an awesome drug,” he says, “but it’s really hard and time consuming. It can take over a year to do the engineering. It used to take longer.”

And Glanville is assembling the tools and technologies to shorten that even further. Some of his favorite projects demonstrate just how relevant antibody engineering is to the real world:

  • Universal vaccine. Distributed Bio was recently awarded a large grant to develop its broad-spectrum vaccine that can protect against not just one flu, but many versions.
  • Snake bite vaccine. The company found a guy who spent 17 years being immunized with snake venom, building up an incredible immunity. Jake and his team screened his blood, found a bunch of these antibodies for snake venom, and made a broad-spectrum antivenom vaccine. The NIH is now supporting this project so that it can eventually come to market.
  • AI engineering of antibodies. The company is using machine learning to make a million versions of a starting antibody, then it’s using more machine learning to figure out how to optimize the best of those antibodies even more. A number of companies are now using Distributed Bio’s system.

Despite the truly amazing advances in computation, automation, and gene reading/writing/editing that enable us to begin engineering the immune system, the drug maker that Glanville is perhaps most fond of is the human body.

[Your body] makes drugs faster and better than the entire pharmaceutical industry.

“Your own body is a drug generation engine,” he says. “For the last 462 million years, our bodies have evolved the ability to develop antibodies. [We get sick and] within a week or two we’ve already produced medicine. It’s able to make drugs faster and better than the entire pharmaceutical industry. That’s pretty remarkable.”With the ability to engineer the human immune system, the future for medicine — and the ‘new pharma’ industry — seems bright.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Rodalyn Guinto for additional research and reporting in this post. Rodalyn is a clinical researcher and writer interested in therapies and medical devices advancing diabetes treatment, as well as public policies supporting social justice.

Disclaimer: I am the founder of SynBioBeta, the innovation network for the synthetic biology industry. Some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference (click here for a full list of sponsors).

Originally published on Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2019/08/28/meet-the-synthetic-biology-company-engineering-your-immune-system/

John Cumbers

John Cumbers

John Cumbers is the founder of SynBioBeta. John is passionate about education and on the use and adoption of biological technologies. He has received multiple awards and grants from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for his work in the field. John has been involved in multiple startups such as those producing food for space, microbes to extract lunar and martian resources, and hoverboards! John is an active investor through the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund and his synthetic biology syndicate on AngelList.

Rodalyn Guinto

Rodalyn Guinto

Rodalyn is a journalist based in San Francisco, CA. She has a Master’s in Public Policy from Mills College.

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