Synthetic Biology in the Medical Field: Should It Be Used in the Development of Vaccines and Future Medical Research?

Sara Maltempi, Grade 10

Synthetic biology is a scientific field in which the genomes of organisms are redesigned to give them new useful abilities by combining the principles of engineering and biology (1). Synthetic biology has only been around for a couple of decades but it has already created a new industry making “chemicals, drugs, proteins, probiotics, sensors, fertilisers, textiles, food and many other things from engineered cells” (2). As the field of synthetic biology rapidly develops, controversy over whether it should be embraced has developed alongside it. One main use of synthetic biology, and arguably its most controversial use, is in the development of vaccines and medical research.

An example of how synthetic biology can be applied in medicine is it has the potential to create vaccines for diseases that vaccines cannot be created for using traditional methods because their antigenic diversity and mutation rates are so high. Synthetic biology can be applied to help create virus-like particles, which are “recombinantly produced viral structures that exhibit immunoprotective traits of native viruses but are noninfectious” (3), that match the genetic makeup of a naturally occurring disease which then can be made into vaccines to fight that disease. The fact that virus-like particles are noninfectious yet have the same structure as a specific virus is why they can successfully be turned into vaccines because they can properly prepare the body to fight against an invasion of that pathogen without the risk of actually making the person receiving the vaccine sick. With the use of synthetic biology devices, a person can keep immunogens outside or inside the virus-like particle that upon vaccination are able to induce a quick natural immune response that boosts the efficacy of the vaccine by increasing the vaccine’s uptake (4). This shows how the application of synthetic biology to virus-like particles further improves their value in the development of vaccines.

Another way synthetic biology can be used in the medical field is in creating synthetic gene networks which are then used in the research of drugs. An example of this is the synthetic gene network that was developed to screen anti-cancer drugs. This works by simulating the cell population of a person with cancer, meaning the cell population contains abnormally reproducing cells as well as cells whose rapid reproduction is stopped in the G1 phase of the cell cycle, this is achieved by controlling what genes are expressed in the network (5). This synthetic gene network can be used to screen anti-cancer drugs by showing whether the drugs can kill tumor cells without harming healthy cells in a mixed cell population. This demonstrates how synthetic biology can significantly change the way medical research is conducted for the better by presenting a new method for testing drugs.

Of course, as is so in every controversy, there are also downsides to synthetic biology. There are concerns about the safety of synthetic biology. As the field progresses and its tools and discoveries become more widely available, many people believe that it could easily fall into the wrong hands and give someone the power to create biological weapons that could pose serious safety threats. This was proven in 2002 when scientists in the USA recreated the polio virus from scratch using synthetic biology (1). Luckily these scientists meant no harm, but if someone who does mean harm learns how they did it, the results could be catastrophic. In response to this, the United States government has been taking steps to prevent information and technology from getting to people who may have malicious intentions by putting new measures in place. These include assessing how potentially dangerous new projects are, more heavily regulating who can access high-risk infectious agents, and keeping more papers classified (1, 6). Despite these concerns, there have been no legitimate biosecurity threats reported yet, making synthetic biology’s safety record very good (6). Its clean record combined with the many new safety measures being implemented helps ease some of the concerns about the field.

In summary, synthetic biology is incredibly useful in the medical field and will have a positive impact on the development of vaccines and future medical research. This is proven by the number of accomplishments that have already taken place in the field’s short lifetime. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the improvement of the method for developing vaccines through the use of engineered virus-like particles that are enhanced with the use of synthetic biology and the creation of a synthetic gene network that can test anti-cancer drugs. Although, despite all the good synthetic biology can do, there are plenty of hypothetical dangers that come with the breakthroughs such as the threat of biological weapons. However, there are regulations in place to prevent these possibilities from becoming realities. As has already been shown, synthetic biology is capable of allowing many significant advances in the development of vaccines and in future medical research if we embrace it.


[1] National Human Genome Research Institute, Synthetic Biology. National Human Genome Research Institute, (2019)
[2] F. Meng, T. Ellis, The second decade of synthetic biology: 2010-2020. Nature Communications 11, 5174 (2020). doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-19092-2
[3] H. Charlton Hume, et al., Synthetic biology for bioengineering virus-like particle vaccinations. Biotechnology & Bioengineering 116, 705-708 (2019). doi: 10.1002/bit.26890
[4] J. Rosenthal, et al., Pathogen-like particles: biomimetic vaccine carriers engineered at the nanoscale. Current Opinion in Biotechnology 28, 51-58 (2014). doi: 10.1016/j.copbio.2013.11.005
[5] Z. Kis, et al., Mammalian synthetic biology: emerging medical applications. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 12, 20141000 (2015). doi: 10.1098/rsif.2014.1000
[6] G. Gronvall, Safety, security, and serving the public interest in synthetic biology. Journal of Industrial Microbiology & Biotechnology 45, 463-466 (2018). doi: 10.1007/s10295-018-2026-4


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