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Illustration of test tubes and science icons for article on drug discovery.
Published On: August 2nd, 2022

Synthetic biology is a new life science label for processes like Protein Engineering and Genetic Engineering that apply engineering design principles to molecular biology to create new biological parts and systems. In drug discovery, synthetic biology creates a world of possibilities for efficient and effective medical treatment. The future of synthetic biology will incorporate synthetic biology tools into every part of the drug discovery process.Read on to learn more about the future of synthetic biology and what it can offer society.

The Drug Discovery Process

To understand how synthetic biology applies to drug discovery, it’s important to understand the steps of the drug discovery process. Drug discovery begins with identifying and validating drug targets. Next, lead compounds, or leads, are screened to make sure these compounds hit the drug target molecules. Finally, leads are optimized to rule out compounds that are less effective or higher in undesirable side effects. Testing the stability of drugs is a key part of the optimization step. Once a lead has been selected, that compound must be produced for preclinical and clinical testing.

Drug Target Identification and Validation

A drug target is a molecule that performs a disease-related biological function. Drugs act on these molecules to alter or stop functions that lead to disease symptoms. Drug targets are usually protein molecules.

To identify drug targets, scientists typically work in reverse- starting from a known function and identifying which molecules are involved in that function. This is called target deconvolution and requires complex chemical and microbiological assays to locate which molecule performs the targeted function.

Synthetic biology in drug discovery allows scientists to create new tools to study disease mechanisms at a molecular level. Synthetic circuits are living systems that act as logic gates. Synthetic circuits make it easy to see which molecular processes are taking place. These synthetic biology drug discovery processes are known as genome mining.

Biosynthesis of Lead Compounds for Testing

Synthetic biology can be used to develop living systems that produce desirable metabolites. Metabolites are the byproducts of bacteria digesting an energy source. For example, bacteria metabolize sugar to produce ethanol in the fermentation of wine or beer, and the same principle can be applied to create many metabolites beyond ethanol. Drug development has shifted from using naturally derived products from plants to using chemical engineering to synthesize drug compounds.

However, synthetic biology takes drug discovery a step further by enabling scientists to synthesize natural products using synthetic biology systems. This opens up the possibility of biosynthesizing drugs that are too complicated or too expensive to produce with chemical engineering or drugs that rely on rare plants. Once a lead compound has been selected, it might be created with synthetic biology. While this application of synthetic biology in drug discovery takes effect near the end of drug discovery, biosynthesis was one of the earliest applications of synthetic biology in the pharmaceutical industry.

Looking Ahead

The synthetic biology drug discovery techniques described above focus on the molecular level. However, identifying target molecules and synthesizing helpful drug compounds is only the first step. Synthetic biology for drug discovery will expand to the cellular level in the future. Imagine a therapeutic cell line that creates the target drug molecule while living inside a patient’s body. Scientists are working their way up from designing synthetic bioparts to engineering entire cell systems. In the next century, synthetic biology will reinvigorate and reshape drug discovery.

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