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Canada SynBio 2018 Day 2, Strategies for Strengthening Synthetic Biology in Canada

BENJAMIN SCOTT - MARCH 20, 2018

The second day of Canada SynBio 2018 was a smaller, closed-doors meeting to specifically discuss how to support and grow synthetic biology (synbio) in Canada. Members of the SynBio Canada Steering Committee (Laura and Ben) were fortunate to attend, to offer insight from early career researchers and students who are striving for dedicated support of synbio in Canada.

  Funding Synthetic Biology Panel.  From left to right: Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO, Ontario Genomics (Moderator); Marc LePage, President and CEO, Genome Canada; Paul Lasko, Director Institute of Genetics, CIHR; Ted Hewitt, President, SSHRC; Mario Pinto, President, NSERC.  Image courtesy of Dr. Leslie Mitchell, NYU, Sc2.0 project.

Funding Synthetic Biology Panel. From left to right: Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO, Ontario Genomics (Moderator); Marc LePage, President and CEO, Genome Canada; Paul Lasko, Director Institute of Genetics, CIHR; Ted Hewitt, President, SSHRC; Mario Pinto, President, NSERC. Image courtesy of Dr. Leslie Mitchell, NYU, Sc2.0 project.

Several times during the second day of the conference, the desire to identify and build the synthetic biology community in Canada was expressed. This is precisely the goal of SynBio Canada, and we’re excited to provide a platform for the research community to connect and collaborate!

Here we summarize the second day of enthusiastic discussion and debate surrounding the future of synthetic biology in Canada, to bring the suggestions and concerns of the participants to a larger audience. There were many fantastic ideas, which will also be further elaborated on by Ontario Genomics in a future white paper. Thank you to Ontario Genomics and ISED for hosting an engaging conference.

Highlights are presented in bold text for a faster read.

Richard Johnson, CEO of Global Helix, Director of iGEM Foundation and the Engineering Biology Research Consortium

Richard discussed the trends and efforts that have led to dedicated support for synbio in the US. Rather than the unique case of the UK, where support was government led, support for synbio in the US has come from a variety of sources. He organized his presentation into “synbio headlines”, with the key drivers for synbio support in the US.

  • Biology has been made easier to engineer through the standardization of genetic “parts”. This has been successful for E. coli and yeast, but not yet for mammalian cells.
  • Biotechnology contributes ~2.5% to the total US economy (approx. $500 M per year). Synbio is a convergence of biology and engineering, which DARPA has recognized as a major pillar of production and advanced manufacturing. This has lead to dedicated funding from several US federal sources, particularly the Department of Energy, DARPA, and NIST.
  • Synbio is leading to new business models, and government can act as a key funder + de-risker through financial support for these new business ideas. Private investment will follow, and it’s growing rapidly.
  • Synbio is advancing so fast that it threatens to overwhelm current regulations. Safety must be addressed from the outset of any project.

 

Vincent Martin, Co-Director of the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology, and Professor at Concordia University

Vincent has been a strong and vocal proponent for synthetic biology in Canada. During his talk, he discussed his personal efforts at Concordia University to build their synbio capacity, and listed his ideas to strengthen the field at a national level.

  • He opened with a frank discussion regarding the history of synbio support in Canada, or the lack there-of. Meetings in 2009, 2012, and 2014 have led to numerous suggestions, but little action at a national level.
  • He also discussed the difficulty in maintaining support for an iGEM team. He discussed the increasing costs for participation in the iGEM competition and that it relies too heavily on volunteers for supervision and teaching. He called for institutional support for the iGEM concept, or perhaps a Canadian equivalent, which directly provides for undergraduate training in synthetic biology. He also expressed the need to provide a path for trainees to move from iGEM teams into a graduate project.
  • Canadian universities must become better at developing biological engineering programs. He explained that students are desperately calling for this, but universities are slow to react.
  • The solution that Vincent devised for Concordia, was to create the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB), to gather expertise from various departments into the same institute. This was made possible thanks to an ambitious new university president, who called for proposals for clusters of research, to help a smaller university like Concordia become a leader in specific fields.
  • Vincent also discussed his frustration with current funding panels in Canada, as they don’t recognize synbio as a distinct field. He also stated that NSERC simply doesn’t have a mechanism to fund an interdisciplinary synbio network (see later sections for the response from funding agencies).
  • One of the components of CASB is a genome foundry, which includes automated equipment to rapidly assemble large pieces of customized DNA. He stated that the foundry is meant to act as a proof-of-concept in Canada, and they’re looking for collaborators to use it.
  • He also expressed the need to better support the entrepreneurial talent of synbio researchers. Again, Concordia University is being very proactive with this, with the launch of their D3 innovation hub, and dedicated lab space which is soon to be built.

Specifically regarding the future white paper, which will summarize the ideas from the conference, Vincent offered this advice:

  1. Need a champion in government or an NGO, to ensure the proposals are acted upon. They should be impartial, not directly benefit from any proposed funding, and work to bring the community together. Mona Nemer, the Chief Science Advisor of Canada, seemed like a potential “champion”. (In the later breakout discussion groups, Vincent Martin was also discussed as a potential “champion”.)
  2. Who in government will a proposal/white paper be handed to? It’s not clear who at the federal level can act on these proposals. So, despite a wealth of ideas, the receptor of the white paper still needs to be addressed.

Following these presentations were a series of breakout sessions, to discuss key challenges and opportunities for synthetic biology in Canada.

Highly Qualified Personnel, Students, Skills, and iGEM

Challenges:

  • Limited funding for multi-discipline research and “long shots”/big risk big reward projects.
  • A need for a common forum for the community (which is what SynBio Canada wants to contribute to).

Opportunities:

  • “Transdisciplines” where ethics, safety, social science informs the science being conducted. Jennifer Kuzma elaborates on this in her own article, stating that “I’m continually impressed by the Canadian ethos of diversity and inclusion---why should technological research and development be different? Canada has a prime opportunity to lead in the design and execution of responsible innovation for synthetic biology.”
  • Connections between institutes, where the experiential-based learning of colleges and polytechnics could be paired with university programs, to provide direct experience in biotechnology.

Research and Access to Technology and Facilities

Challenges:

  • Lack of core facilities. Canada’s expansive geography limits access, and there’s an uncertainty of what already exists.
  • Grant review panels are not amenable to interdisciplinary grants.

Opportunities:

  • Greater transparency of core facilities, such as the equipment available and how much it costs to use.
  • A registry of existing resources.

Commercialization and Translation

Challenges:

  • Lack of funding, need a SBIR style of program (which has been successful in the US).
  • Lack of lab space, and available mentors.
  • Regulatory barriers. Inconsistent regulations, and it’s difficult to know which government agency should be involved.

Opportunities:

  • Called on funding for the pre-commercialization stage, with a direct ask from Genome Canada for support.
  • Short term focus: natural resources and agriculture, using waste as chemical feedstock.
  • Long term focus: healthcare, such as CAR-T therapy and personalized medicine.
  • “Limitation is only imagination” when it comes to applications of synthetic biology.

The final three breakout sessions (Ethics, Regulation and Public Trust; Leveraging Canada’s Strengths; Building on International Initiatives) are collectively summarized below.

Challenges:

  • Difficult to know who/where synbio researchers are in Canada (SynBio Canada aims to help with this!)
  • Who are the key international partners?
  • Need to be very strategic in how synbio-themed grants are currently funded.

Opportunities/Actions:

  • A coordinated effort between different sectors to define synthetic biology and collaborate
  • Focus on ethics and regulatory steps early, as they compliment research (not a hurdle)
  • Work to frame synthetic biology more in a positive light, discussing the benefits rather than the technology
  • Use inclusiveness/”niceness” of Canadian culture as a strength to recruit research talent
  •  Focus on big projects/moon shots/grand challenges as a coordinated effort to strengthen synbio
  • Create a community or National Centre of Excellence to specifically focus on synbio
  • Create a culture to think/collaborate globally
  • Identify research areas/applications that are internationally competitive
  • Opportunity to send trainees between genome foundries/synbio facilities across Canada

Granting Agency Panel

The day was capped with a panel discussion involving representatives from all major funding agencies (Genome Canada, NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC). The enthusiasm of the day was somewhat tempered by the reality requesting dedicated synbio funding from these agencies. Interestingly, none of the funding agency representatives acknowledged synthetic biology as a distinct field, and were hesitant to brand research this way. Mario Pinto, the president of NSERC, suggested that when writing grants researchers instead focus on the applications of their research.

Researchers in the audience expressed their frustration with this strategy, as it has led to little perceived support for synthetic biology in Canada. The interdisciplinary nature of the field seemed to preclude it from traditional grants which have focused on more rigid definitions of research fields.

To address this conflict, the panel brought up “challenge-based calls”, which are grants that focus more on a specific challenge in medicine/industry/society, and are open to many research strategies to address these challenges. Challenge-based calls for artificial intelligence research are apparently upcoming, so it’s possible synthetic biology could be next.

There was also discussion of the recently announced increases towards science funding in Canada, which will include new funds to encourage interdisciplinary projects. Such grants may be more amenable to synthetic biology research and applications, but it’s still too early to say.

Final Thoughts

The US and UK have become leaders in synthetic biology due to the initial dedicated government funding, followed by sustained public and private financial support. The specific strategies employed by the US and the UK to reach this point, however, are slightly different. Where the US was led by various government agencies that recognized synbio is key to industrial competitiveness, the UK was led top-down from the federal government with a specific national strategy. But, whatever the strategy is, dedicated funding specifically for synthetic biology is clearly key.

It’s now time for Canada to build on these strategies and put the excellent ideas from the Canada SynBio 2018 conference into practice.

Benjamin ScottComment