LISBON, Portugal — What if artificial, artificial human beings could save us all? A small Portuguese company called Synthetic Genomics has developed a process that could produce synthetic versions of every essential biological cell – the cells that keep our lives humming along – in the world.
And if those cells could be manufactured faster and at a lower cost than the materials available in nature, why wouldn’t they become ubiquitous? Who wouldn’t want to have the power to change your own genetic makeup, building a new person on a moment’s notice? Maybe it’s not just you. Synthetic Genomics says it is close to turning this dream into reality – and it is looking to investors to kick off commercial trials.
In interviews in his home in Lisbon, Emmanuel Nkwonta – who co-founded Synthetic Genomics and chairs its corporate and scientific strategy – explained how the science works.
As it turns out, creating artificial versions of all our cells requires an extraordinarily versatile drug to actually make them. But this “mythical drug” itself is only the start of a far more ambitious story. “A lot of the way the science works is when you make a little bit of biological tissue … you must have a synthetic copy of it, because it has to reproduce,” Nkwonta said.
Nkwonta and the Synthetic Genomics team had hoped to first start churning out these synthetic tissues this year, but delays and technical hurdles eventually forced them to push the start date back to 2020.
But first they need funding. They’ve taken the simple approach of telling potential investors: not everything has to be profitable. In fact, Nkwonta argues that using synthetic biology to save the planet would cost far less than human fossil fuel use.
The form of synthetic cells that Synthetic Genomics aims to generate – biomolecules or chemical products known as drug libraries – are simple to manufacture in large quantities. It would take only a few million dollars to have synthetic versions of each cell form in a 30,000-mile radius around the globe, the company claims. You might be able to order synthetic versions of your own cells that way.
Nkwonta made clear that the company is aiming to sell cheap versions of lifesaving devices like diabetes insulins, antibiotics, cardiac pacemakers, skin grafts and hormones. With those products, orders are bulkier and higher profit margins, but for now they aren’t worth getting people killed by infections or failing devices, he says.
Synthetic Genomics is a small company, with a staff of just six people that includes Nkwonta and a dozen scientists. Some of its biggest backers are major pharmaceutical companies, but it’s also involved in deals with some smaller biotech companies. Investors include Netscape founder Jim Clark.
But Nkwonta said the real revenue stream is still coming down the line, as the firm seeks to work with global pharmaceutical companies.
“We’re also developing the technical platform,” he said. “This is actually what drives us forward every day. We want to let the big companies put their money into this scientific platform.”
It’s still unclear when Synthetic Genomics will be ready to go commercial, and whether the idea will be too much of a leap forward in technology for people to even consider.
Nkwonta said he thinks most people are more interested in smart machines doing things that they find themselves unable to do for themselves. “It’s easier for me to imagine that somebody could build a machine like a baker, a pastry chef, that can think and learn,” he said. “That’s much easier to say than I think about it, than talking about having an artificial person.”
“I think people are interested in the artistic and rather than scientific value of the technology itself,” he said.
By David Roodenberg