1. Frith, Karen H.

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Synthetic biology is a research subspecialty involving scientists from chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering whose purpose is to "design and construct new biological entities such as enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells or redesign existing biological systems" (Engineering Biology Research Consortium [EBRC], 2019). The emphasis of synthetic biology is discovery, application, and automation of processes to find solutions to problems in a variety of sectors, including medicine, energy, and the environment. In this column, I discuss the 20-year roadmap of research priorities in synthetic biology, released by the EBRC in 2019.


The 20-year synthetic biology roadmap (EBRC, 2019) was developed by 80 leading scientists and engineers in this emerging research field. The first of its kind, the roadmap was funded by the National Science Foundation to build on the success of biotechnology and position the United States as a leader in a bio-based economy. The audience for the roadmap includes scientists, engineers, and policy makers. However, nurse scientists, particularly those whose programs of research focus on system biology, could be crucial members of these engineering biology research teams (Founds, 2009).


The report is built around a model that, at its core, describes the engineering process: design, build, test, and learn (EBRC, 2020). This approach uses technical approaches identified in the model, including "1) gene editing, synthesis, and assembly; 2) biomolecule, pathway, and circuit engineering; 3) host and consortia engineering; and 4) data integration, modeling, and automation" (EBRC, 2019, p. 12). The roadmap categorizes progress needed in each of the technical approaches at 2, 5, 10, and 20 years to solve real problems in health and medicine, food and agriculture, environmental biotechnology, industrial biotechnology, and energy.



The goal of the synthetic biology roadmap in health and medicine is to improve the longevity and quality of life in humans. The roadmap lists three overarching societal challenges that are important for synthetic biology to address: "1) eradicate existing and emerging infectious diseases; 2) address non-communicable diseases and disorders; and 3) address environmental threats to health, including toxins, pollution, accidents, radiation, exposure, and injury" (EBRC, 2019, p. 145, 150, & 157). The overarching societal challenges in the roadmap are consistent with the framework for Healthy People 2030 (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, n.d.). The roadmap lays out aims and objectives of research to overcome these societal challenges.


Infectious Diseases

The first societal concern is infectious diseases. The roadmap identifies technical approaches that need to be developed to address the problem of emerging infections. For example, diagnostic testing for emerging viral infections is a critical need to prevent epidemics and pandemics (Johns Hopkins University, 2020). Gene synthesis editing technologies are needed to synthesize deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) for development and production of viral sensing technologies (EBRC, 2019). Synthetic biology research will also focus on epigenetic silencing of viral DNA, a technique that inactivates genes from precursor cells to clones of daughter cells (Tycko, 2000). A similar technique is already in research and development (R&D) in the agricultural sector to combat viruses that attack plants (Gaffar & Koch, 2019).


Data integration, modeling, and automation technologies will focus on fast sequencing of viral and human DNA to identify the presence of an infection and find biomarkers indicating susceptibility of humans to certain viruses. Synthetic biology is already contributing to the R&D needed to diagnose and treat infectious diseases. For example, researchers have used much of this year to find a safe and effective vaccine against the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 disease; RNA vaccines are among the most promising candidate vaccines because genetic engineering technology is faster than traditional methods for vaccine R&D (Schmidt, 2020). Other technical approaches needed to address infectious diseases are the development of antigens and adjuvants that improve immune memory and improved surveillance methods for epidemics in real time (EBRC, 2019).


Noncommunicable Diseases

The societal challenge of noncommunicable diseases and disorders covers a huge range of medical problems; however, there are common technical approaches that the roadmap identifies as priorities in the near and long term. One need is the development of sensors that can be used in the human body to monitor biomolecules associated with an illness. For example, a group of researchers has shown proof of concept for a noninvasive sensor placed on a forearm that estimates blood glucose levels from the skin and predicts future glucose levels using artificial intelligence and continuous skin monitoring (Kang et al., 2020).


Other needed technical developments include creating methods to grow synthetic tissues that stimulate the body's own repair or decrease the immune response to transplanted tissues or organs; developing new drug therapies that can be targeted to individuals based on their genome; and advancing the use of genetic engineering techniques such as the Crispr-CAS to treat inherited disease and cancers (EBRC, 2019). For example, a clinical trial in Japan recently completed its first transplant of sheets of cardiac muscle cells developed using induced pluripotent stem cells. These heart grafts are intended to promote regeneration of damage heart muscle (Lavars, 2020).


Environmental Conditions

The final societal concern addressed in the roadmap is the injury or illness from exposure to environmental conditions on human health. The technical advances needed to address this concern include the development of genome engineering procedures that are inexpensive and accessible, in particular, the roadmap calls for synthetically produced cell sources, cellular pathways, extracellular matrices, and connective tissues that improve the body's acceptance of prosthetic parts.


Third-degree burns on large areas of the human body, for example, are difficult to treat with autologous skin grafting because there is little skin from which to harvest for the graft. To resolve this problem, the University of Toronto School of Engineering and the Sunnybrook Hospital developed a prototype 3D skin printing process (Treacy, 2020) in which a handheld 3D printer lays bioink layers composed of mesenchymal stromal cells over the burn. Another technical advance needed to address the concern of environmental hazards is the development of implantable sensors to detect, analyze, and report toxins or indicators of cellular damage and, in turn, accept commands from an external source to mitigate the environmental effects on the human body (EBRC, 2019).



Many other technical advances are outlined in the EBRC report. Interested readers can read the full report at I encourage faculty who teach PhD students in nursing or interdisciplinary research programs to consider how to develop the next generation of scientists who will lead the research, development, and testing of new devices and processes needed to solve the societal challenges identified in this roadmap. The National Institute of Nursing Research's (2016) strategic plan identified "personalized health," which includes omics research and the discovery of biomarkers to prevent illness and manage chronic diseases, as a future direction for nursing research. The inclusion of personalized health in the strategic plan indicates that funding from the National Institute of Nursing Research could be directed toward projects in this exciting field.




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