Google and AbbVie Team Up To Fight Age-Related Disease

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Calico LLC, the rather mysterious biotechnology research and development firm established by Google, has announced a research partnership with AbbVie Inc. to develop treatments for age-related diseases. According to the Wall Street Journal, Calico and AbbVie are each set to invest up to $250 million each in the project, with a the potential of adding an additional $500 million apiece sometime down the line.

The companies are looking to address conditions such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. Calico will be building a state of the art R&D center somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area that will house early drug development and human trials. AbbVie will assist in the processes of identification, design, and early research of potential drug options. They will also have the option to pick up the management of any late-stage development and marketing, should drugs pass the early stages of trials.

The partnership with AbbVie is ambitious, but not out of character from Google. Calico is emblematic of Google’s continuing desire to branch out into areas beyond internet search, into fields that are benefiting from technological advances.

By focusing on age-related illness, Calico and AbbVie will be venturing into an area where results by pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms have been decidedly mixed. The industry has struggled to make steady advances in age-related disease, especially neurogenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Many experimental treatments to address the underlying progression of such diseases have failed in clinical trials.

For some analysts, the move serves as a perfectly logical step for Google, and proof that they are will to place significant capital into these new directions.

“It’s a drop in the bucket for Google, but they are seeking big outcomes by dramatically extending human life,” said Scott Strawn, an analyst at research firm IDC. “These types of partnerships will be core to making this happen.”

Read more about the partnership between AbbVie and Google’s Calico at the Wall Street Journal.

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Technology to Increase Productivity in Paraguay

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Beautiful Landscape of Paraguay

As the world grows ever more interconnected, we can easily take for granted the ease with which transactions can be initiated or completed. Our requests can be processed and received instantaneously, and that this increased connectivity has no doubt increased productivity and, according to some studies, economic prosperity and efficiency. Lest we take these new functions for granted, we should take care to remember that this technology is not readily available to all peoples of the world. Enter the World Bank, which is working closely with Paraguay’s Crédito Agrícola de Habilitación in order to bring this kind of technology to several Paraguayan agricultural workers. This solution is predicated on data that shows that access to mobile technology can increase economic productivity.

So why Paraguay? Despite agricultural activity contributing to twenty percent of the nation’s GDP and employing nearly a quarter of the nation’s labor force, financial challenges continue to mire economic progress. For starters, not even ten years ago, eighteen percent of workers could actually obtain credit. Farmers attribute this startlingly low statistic most to, in order of frequency,1) high interest rates, 2) information requirements, and 3) physical distance. Furthermore, a great deal of these sales are done informally, with no records and documents of the transactions or sales. Many products are often sold well below market value because of a combination of difficult access to markets and an immediate need for cash. There are some farmers whose sales are directly incorporate into larger chains, but unfortunately, these are not very liquid gains.

That the World Bank partnered with Crédito Agrícola de Habilitación is amazing, as the two seem to be a perfect match. After all, Crédito is tasked with increasing access to financial tools for micro and small agricultural producers, also called MSAPs. The World Bank is helping out by designing a mobile factoring scheme that allows MSAPs to request and conduct confirmed credit sales with other registered buyers. All steps of the sale are documented and registered via the mobile scheme, and will actually allow MSAPs to request credit from buyers who in turn provide proof of confirmed credit sales via documents such as deferred checks. Crédito then discounts those checks and cancels the credit at the checks maturity date.

Now, this program is still very much in a testing phase, but the outcome is looking good, as four transactions have been completed from 2013-21014. Three of MSAPs served as point people for the small cooperatives (Cooperativa Guayaivi Unido and Cooperativa Pacova Poty), and were in charge of preparing the sales. There are currently legal restrictions in place that prevent this new system from going fully electronic, so for now there will have to be a mix of ink and electronic processes. Crédito is also working to provide more MSAPs with mobile devices as well as training on how to use the platform to their advantage. This is certainly a step in the right direction.

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Frontrunner Drugs for Ebola Treatment

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Ebola Virus

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been spreading at an alarming rate; far quicker than health workers are able to harness it and control it.  While this is terrifying in itself, the ultimate fear is that the disease will break out of West Africa, spreading further into the continent.

As of late, the World Health Organization (WHO) has expended a $100 million campaign that will go towards anything and everything necessary to get this disease under control.  Meanwhile, the World Bank will contribute to this cause as well, working on getting a $200 million pledge to give further aid to the epidemic.  So far, the virus has taken the lives of upwards of 900 individuals in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia in a very short period of time.

While symptoms of Ebola can show up in just two days, it can also take up to 21 days for symptoms to be exhibited, which can contribute to the spread of this disease more easily.  For example, if someone contracts the disease in Guinea, they could board a plane and be anywhere in the world weeks before they even realize they are ill.  In that vein, the disease can not only be spread outside of west Africa, but to anywhere else in the world, where it could possibly spread even further.

Given the potential for this disease to spread so easily, there has been a lot of pressure on the FDA to expedite production and testing of new Ebola drugs so that they can be administered to humans. One of the frontrunners of Ebola treatment drugs is called TKM-Ebola.  The company that developed this potential treatment is Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, which is a biopharmaceutical firm in Canada.  Tekmira has a contract with the United States Department of Defense to develop the Ebola treatment drug.  This contract is worth $140 M.  The company also specializes in drugs and treatments that operate as gene silencers, or RNA Interference drugs, which have the potential to be very successful.

Hopefully, this drug will be developed quickly enough to help reduce the impact of the disease and keep it from spreading further. Read more about Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and their development of Ebola treatments here.

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Experimental Ebola Drugs: Who Should Receive Treatment First?

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Areas affected by Ebola

If you’ve even glanced at the news as of late, you have no doubt come across screaming headlines about the Ebola Virus outbreak in West Africa. Currently, the Ebola virus is untreatable, but in light of this terrible outbreak, there has been a great deal of work going into experimental drug treatments for the virus.  Most recently, the first experimental treatment drug was administered to two white American aid workers, which has caused a good deal of controversy.  Many people are saying that with hundreds of African people affected and dying from the outbreak, this experimental drug should have gone to them.

However, it is important that we take a step back and really examine the choice to administer this experimental drug to these White Aids workers before anyone else. This new drug has not even completed the full animal safety testing that these type of drugs usually go through and has never been given to people.  Dr. Salim S. Abdool Karim, who is the director of an AIDS research center in South Africa called Caprisa, recognized the outrage that would have been caused by administering such a new drug to African patients. “It would have been the front-page screaming headline: Africans used as guinea pigs for the American drug company’s medicine, he said.

That all being said, this is no doubt an extremely difficult predicament for public health authorities.  People are dying from this virus that is ravaging west Africa, but is it ethical to administer these experimental treatments that have not been fully tested and deemed safe for humans?

Next week the World Health Organization plans to meet in order to discuss the best course of action for this sensitive and complex situation.  Not only are these treatments extremely new, but they are also extremely limited- what is the best course of action for deciding who should receive treatment first?

A New York Times article discusses the controversy further, which you can see here.  It will be interesting to see how successful this drug is and hopefully we will see some progress in terms of stopping this outbreak.

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Color-Changing Plants: The Pretty Side of Synthetic Biology

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Daniel BednarikThe field of synthetic biology is not normally thought of as a source of beauty. The field is typically associated with areas such as artificial life, the generation of biofuels and the next wave in artificial materials production. But part of what makes some of the uninitiated skeptical of the benefits of synbio is perhaps its apparent lack of human element. In a recent article, Siliconrepublic profiled Keira Havens, one half of a duo that makes up Revolution Bioengineering which hopes to produce plants that can grow to be any color imaginable.

Havens and her partner Nikolai Braun, both of the United States, packed their bags and left everything behind to devote themselves to color-changing plants at the SynBio axlr8r run by the University College Cork in Ireland. Havens credits the program with helping to keep her dream alive.

Havens indicates that the goal, while still in development, works upon very basic scientific theses. She insists that plants that change colors and have a person’s name genetically coded into the leaves is not nearly as far-flung science fiction as it may seem. She notes that plants such as hydrangeas change color based up upon the acidity of the soil. Revolution Bioengineering plans to change the environment of molecules called anthocyaninins by connecting specific genes used by the plants internal clock used to benefit from photosynthesis. This, the scientists hope, will allow the plant to change from blue to red and back again throughout the day, while also displaying elaborate designs upon its leaves.

Havens and Braun will be looking for a market for these plants once their research is completed. However, that idea serves to do much more than simply make the two some money. It has the potential to make the casual viewer see a thing a beauty and not focus strictly on the fact that it is a genetically modified organism.

To read the full article, check out Siliconrepublic.

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Report Finds Critical Gaps In Synbio Regulation

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Daniel BednarikA new report by the Venter Institute reports that new technology being developed in the field of synthetic biology falls outside the bounds of regulations currently on the books in the U.S, Bloomberg BNA reports. The report, “Synthetic Biology and the U.S. Biotechnology Regulatory System: Challenges and Options,” looks at the agencies that have regulatory authority over engineered plants and other organisms and identified authoritative gaps.

The agencies involved are the U.S Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Environmental Detection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration. The report identifies two primary areas where gaps in federal oversight are present. The first lies in the ability of APHIS to review genetically engineered organisms but only those that are made employing older engineering techniques.  The second has to do with the capability of the EPA to promptly review the growing number of genetically engineered microbes the field of synbio is developing. The report indicates that the agency may not have the funding or the expertise to keep up with the expanding and diversifying pool of organisms that would fall under its jurisdiction.

The report does not make any specific policy recommendations to fill these gaps, beyond that the EPA and APHIS perhaps ought to focus resources on organisms more likely to pose higher environmental risks, or that congress should expand the authority of the two agencies.

Gaps in the regulations can potentially hinder research.  University may have difficulty conducting research with federal funds without a federal agency with jurisdiction over the field of study. For example, the National Institutes of Health prohibit federally funded researchers from growing genetically engineered plants in the field without the approval of the corresponding federal agency. If no such agency exists, scientists will not be able to conduct such research without violating NIH rules.

To read the original article, visit Bloomberg BNA.

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The Future of Synbio Depends On Public Debate

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Daniel BednarikIf synthetic biology is going to be the next great movement in biotechnology, then there needs to be a concerted effort to make its case to the public, a blog post on the website for the journal Nature argues. Without making a strong push to inform the public of the benefits of synthetic biology, the field could see itself becoming villainized in the way genetically modified organisms have been in Japan, Europe and a growing population within the United States.

This opinion is not mere postulation. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has released a report that says without a broad public debate, synthetic biology could be in for a severe backlash sometime down the road.  Jim Philp, a biologist and policy analyst in the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Industry at OECD says, “You can’t just say you have developed a new technology and tell people to go away and use the products it has helped create.”

Moving forward, governments need to take on the responsibility of connecting scientists with policy-makers and the greater public to spark interest in synthetic biology and its potential. The report cited the International Genetically Engineered Machine at MIT as model for this type of promotion.

Some governments have taken action on the public’s engagement with synbio. The United Kingdom published a plan to serve as a blueprint for development through 2030 which creates benchmarks for innovation and developing technology commercially.

Synthetic biology is a field now halfway through its second decade and its potential for the development of food, medicine, fuel and other applications is apparent. The report by the OECD argues for governments to incentivize research financially and for there to be more coordination internationally to avoid duplicate research.

To read the original post, head over to Nature.

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Synthetic Biology Firm Twist Bioscience Announces Expansion

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DNA Sequence

As the field of synthetic biology expands, independent firms are rapidly expanding to clear research hurdles, the San Francisco Business Times reports. Twist Bioscience, a San Francisco startup, has announced that it will add as many as 80 new employees over the next year and a half. The announcement comes as the firm has raised $26 million in its Series B Funding with was led by Tao Invest, run by Nick and Joby Pritzker. Also contributing were Arch Venture Partners, Paladin Capital Group, Santa Clara’s Applied Materials Inc., and Russian investor Yuri Milner. $5.1 million was also received by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency(DARPA).

The company is looking to accelerate the development of their semiconductor-based system for more lower cost, efficient manufacturing of synthetic DNA. The process is similar to what companies such as Thermo Fisher Scientific who are developing processes to sequence native DNA.

Essentially, Twist is looking to do the same thing but for DNA that is artificially manufactured. The last decade or so of research has been dedicated to the pursuit of reading DNA for the purposes of disease detention and treatment. But according to Twist CEO Emily Leproust, the next wave in DNA research will have to be as dedicated to reading as well as writing.

“You need to read and write,” Leproust said, “and when you can read and write, it becomes extremely powerful.”

The additional personnel will be looking to overcome the bottleneck that occurs in the construction of newly designed DNA. According to Leproust, the process is normally contracted out and is slow and does not provide the number of sequences that researchers are looking for. The expansion will look to streamline R&D to correct these issues in the process.

Visit the San Francisco Business Times to read the original article.

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Genetic Engineers Look to Produce Biofuels From Greenhouse Gas

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Carbon-based pollution and the fuel economy are two problems that are intimately intertwined. Scientist are currently making headway in research that would provide integrated solutions to both, according to the Newscenter at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Essentially, researchers wish to see if it is possible to harvest industrial CO2 emissions and use them to produce renewable liquid transportation fuels.

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Genetic Engineering

(Photo credit:Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)

Researchers with the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) wish to take a microbe that is now being used to produce biodegradable plastic, and engineer it into a strain that can produce high-performance biofuel.

Harry Beller, JBEI microbiologist and lead researcher on this project, says that their work has shown that the bacterium Ralsonia eutropha is capable of generating significant amounts of diesel-range methyl ketones, when grown with carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Methyl ketones are naturally occurring compounds used in flavorings and frangrances, but which Beller and his researchers have found to have high diesel ratings. Beller believes that leaves open the possibility of producing carbon-neutral fuels that represent “a less resource-intensive alternative to making these biofuels from cellulosic biomass.”

Beller had led a previous study in which Escherichia coli (E. coli) was genetically engineered to generate methyl ketone compounds from the glucose in cellulosic biomass. This newer study shows that R. eutropha and E. coli, with the same geneticmodifications, produce comparable amountsof ketones.

Current biofuel production focuses on the conversion of glucose to methyl ketones. This method is far more resource intensive than the use of R. eutropha which requires no biomass crop. With continued research in this area, a future of truly green biofuels may be right around the corner.

To read more about this research, check out the original article Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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Yeast Stands to Introduce the World to Synthetic Biology

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There are some in and around the scientific community who are announcing the retirement of biology oldest workman: evolution. As physicist Michael Brooks says writing for the New Statesman, it is a stepping down that was “3.6 billion years in the making.”

Its replacement, of course, is us. The modern human has studied the natural word to the point where now he can understand natural processes, and re-engineer them to perform in entirely new ways.  For Brooks, and many others, the age of synthetic biology has come.

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Yeast Strands

By Brooks estimation, the area which will open the field of synthetic biology to the world will be yeast (pictured right). Jef Boeke researches yeast genetics at New York University. Boeke wished to do a redesign of the yeast genome in order discover what functions the various parts performed. After significant time and money spent waiting for a private company to complete a portion of the project, Boeke decided that project need to be open-source.

Boeke taught an undergraduate course on genome building, and forged partnerships with institutions, all in the name of building a workforce for his synthetic yeast project. This worldwide network of Boeke’s succeeded in creating a synthetic chromosome for baker’s yeast. This breakthrough may be the first step towards an entirely synthetic yeast.

The chromosome works as well as the naturally occurring, but what is of greater interest for Brooks is how it does unusual things. The chromosome moves and even deletes some its genes. These unusual behaviors will allow scientists to understand how evolution engineered the yeast, and how new variations may open new and exciting applications.

To learn more about other high profile breakthroughs in synthetic biology over the past few years, read the original article over at New Statesman.

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