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Biotechs Partner on Synthetic Plant-Based Drugs

Scanning electron microscope image of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or baker’s yeast (Mogana Das Murtey and Patchamuthu Ramasamy, Wikimedia Commons)

12 Aug. 2021. Two biotechnology companies are designing new processes to produce ingredients much like those found in drugs made from plants for essential medicines. Financial and intellectual property terms of the agreement between Antheia in Menlo Park, California and Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston were not disclosed.

Antheia is a six year-old enterprise, spun-off from the lab of bioengineering professor Christina Smolke at Stanford University, a co-founder of the company. Antheia’s technology genetically alters natural yeast cells to create synthetic mechanisms for converting sugars and amino acids into more complex molecules. The company says its technology simplifies the process to enable single-cell organisms, such as yeast, to produce complex molecules, which normally would require multiple cells, cell components, and tissue.

Antheia says it uses bioinformatics tools to identify genes in variety of organisms that encode for enzymes needed to produce small molecule drugs. The company integrates those genes into engineered yeast cells with synthetic biology to become small-scale production engines for new complex molecules. Those cellular processes are then scaled up for safe fermentation and large-scale production. As reported in Science & Enterprise in April 2018, Smolke and colleagues at Stanford engineered brewer’s yeast cells to produce a cough suppressant drug, normally made from opium poppies.

Medications to maintain basic health care standards

Ginkgo Bioworks develops synthetic biology and engineering tools for biotechnology in medicines, agriculture, and bio-based materials. The company offers synthesized nucleic acids, including DNA, to design microorganisms for producing special-purpose enzymes and other bio-chemicals. Gingo Bioworks says its codebase — a library of cells, enzymes, and genetic programs — helps shortcut the discovery process for generating new bio-engineered products. In addition, Ginkgo Bioworks provides robotics and software, including artificial intelligence, to support its synthetic biology and engineering work.

Antheia says its pipeline includes treatments for pain, cough, opioid addiction, and depression. Antheia calls these drugs essential medicines, a term also used by World Health Organization to indicate a minimal list of medications to maintain basic health care standards, as well as drugs to treat high-priority diseases. The Antheia-Ginkgo partnership expects to generate key active pharmaceutical ingredients and starting materials for essential medicines made from synthetic drug molecules similar to those produced naturally by plants.

Antheia says supply chains for natural plant-based drugs, such as sedatives and pain killers, are fragile under the best of conditions, and depend on growing, harvesting, transporting, and processing materials derived from specialty plants. The companies aim to apply tools from synthetic biology to produce these essential medicines on demand, and in a more environmentally friendly process. They also note synthetic biology and bio-manufacturing offer advantages in supply chain resiliency and agility, cost, quality, sustainability, and efficiency compared to conventional farming and today’s production methods.

“Antheia is committed to using synthetic biology to enable more equitable access to essential medicines,” says Antheia co-founder and chief scientist Kristy Hawkins in a company statement released through Cision. “By partnering with Ginkgo Bioworks, a global leader in organism engineering, we are greatly increasing our ability to develop essential medicines at the speed and scale necessary to drive change in global pharma supply chains.”

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