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A Bright Future for Biotech

Five trends shaping the industry

by
Morgana Moretti, PhD

Morgana Moretti, PhD, is an active scientist and freelance medical writer with more than 12 years of research and writing experience. She holds a doctoral degree in biochemistry, has published...

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From improved computational modeling powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to solutions that promote environmental sustainability, the biotech landscape is experiencing significant progress. 

In this article, we explore the perspectives of two industry experts as they discuss five transformative trends driving biotech’s evolution. 

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1. Improved computational modeling

Amplified by AI and ML integration, computational modeling techniques have explored intricate biomolecular designs and system behaviors. These modeling breakthroughs enable the simultaneous investigation, testing, and optimization of multiple targets and therapeutic interventions, ultimately leading to the development of more effective systems within shorter periods. 

“Using AI and ML to design new drugs holds great potential in creating therapeutic agents that exhibit improved specificity towards biological targets,” says Natália Videira, PhD, ERT, an associate toxicologist at Affygility Solutions, a company providing toxicology services to life sciences companies. “This groundbreaking technology can revolutionize the field of drug discovery and aid in the development of more targeted, potent, and safe medications.” 

AI and ML techniques are also used in drug repurposing or drug combinations to address pressing medical needs. For example, baricitinib, an oral Janus kinase 1/2 inhibitor approved for rheumatoid arthritis treatment, was independently predicted, using AI algorithms, to be useful for COVID-19 infection.1 Patrik Jonsson, president of Lilly Immunology and Lilly USA, said in a statement that as of May 2022, baricitinib was administered to nearly one million patients with COVID-19 in approximately 15 countries.2

With continued advancements and refinements, integrating computational modeling, ML, and AI can transform biotech and drug discovery by unlocking opportunities for innovation and better patient outcomes.

2. New drug modalities create unprecedented opportunities

Traditional drug discovery primarily emphasizes small molecules (<500 g/mol) as drug candidates. However, classical approaches face challenges when targeting certain proteins (such as those lacking defined or shallow binding pockets), often considered “undruggable.” Moreover, the conventional modulation of proteins using small molecule agonists, antagonists, or inhibitors has limitations due to its occupancy-based mechanism. 

New drug modalities can bring new treatments through novel mechanisms of action. In addition, they can expand into areas resistant to traditional treatments.

Precision fermentation offers the advantage of reducing or even eliminating the need for traditional agriculture or livestock farming.

“Among the emerging new drug modalities, antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) and proteolysis-targeting chimeras (PROTACs) seem particularly promising,” says Videira. 

ADCs are designed to selectively deliver cytotoxic agents to tumor cells. According to Videira, they represent a promising generation of drugs that can treat previously intractable or challenging cancers. 

PROTACs is an innovative therapeutic approach capable of tackling disease-causing proteins that were historically difficult to target with conventional small molecules. “This innovative technology opens doors for precision medicine, oncology, and the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases,” says Videira.

Since 2012, research on ADCs has increased year by year, with a substantial increase in the number of papers in 2020.3 Accordingly, global sales of currently marketed ADCs rose significantly from 2020 onwards and are forecast to exceed $16.4 billion in 2026.4 Regarding PROTACs, there are currently at least 20 ongoing clinical trials. PROTAC targets under investigation include androgen receptors (involved in prostate cancer), estrogen receptors (involved in breast cancer), Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (expressed in B cell neoplasms), and TAU (pathological protein of Alzheimer’s disease).5

3. Increasing potential of cell and gene therapies

Over time, technology for generating chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CART) has improved significantly, and this technology continues to be a promising approach to treating tumors. Ongoing research on stem cells also uncovers novel therapies that harness their regenerative capabilities, such as growing healthy heart muscle tissue, which could revolutionize the treatment of heart disease.

“Other promising cell therapy applications include the treatment of wounds and burns using patient-derived or biobank-sourced epithelial cells,” explains Videira. “Bioprinting of small tissues such as gingival, mandible, dental pulp, cartilage, pancreatic islets, and hepatocytes for grafts is another promising new development to hit the biotech sector in recent years.”

Videira also highlights that gene therapy has shown potential in various applications. These include RNA vaccines, adeno-associated virus therapy for conditions like X-linked retinitis pigmentosa and hemophilia B, and the treatment of cancer using DNA vectors or peptide-containing anti-cancer vaccines. Gene therapy also holds promise for treating urinary tract infections through the use of CRISPR-Cas3 phage technology.

Despite recent advances, developing and deploying cell and gene therapy applications have unique challenges. “Addressing the complexity of manufacturing processes and scaling up production, managing immune responses, adverse reactions, and potential complications associated with these therapies, ensuring accessibility of these expensive therapies, and navigating evolving regulatory pathways for approval are some of the challenges,” says Videira. 

Overcoming these challenges will be crucial to fully realizing the potential of cell and gene therapies and bringing their benefits to patients in a safe, effective, and accessible way.

4. Synthetic biology addresses bioeconomy challenges

Numerous start-up ventures, primarily concentrated in the United States and the United Kingdom, are actively translating synthetic biology knowledge into commercial solutions contributing to environmental sustainability. These solutions include bio-based approaches to tackle environmental pollution, from prevention to remediation.

“The production of microorganisms or engineered plants enables the generation of biofuels that offer higher yields, renewable characteristics, and reduced environmental impacts compared to fossil fuels,” explains Videira.

Other examples of synthetic biology applied to environmental sustainability are the development of plant-based bioplastics that are biodegradable and compostable and the use of engineered microorganisms to fix dyes to textiles with reduced toxicity and 90 percent less water use. “There is also research into the use of engineered microorganisms to degrade plastics and address environmental contamination by heavy metals or petroleum,” says Videira.

Over time, technology for generating chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CART) has improved significantly, and this technology continues to be a promising approach to treating tumors.

The global synthetic biology market size was valued at $13.09 billion in 2022 and is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.97 percent from 2023 to 2030.6 While the medical applications segment is expected to experience the highest CAGR during the forecasted period, synthetic biology techniques in sectors such as energy and chemicals will also contribute to overall market growth.

5. A revolution in the food industry

Biotechnology can transform the food industry by fostering the development of more sustainable and nutritious crops and enabling the production of meat and dairy products without animal use.

“Biotechnology will be one of the pillars of modern food production and consumption as it offers innovative solutions to address the challenges faced by the global food system, including population growth and climate changes,” says Mirelle Dogenski, PhD. Dogenski is a food engineer and co-founder at Updairy, a food tech startup developing alternative dairy proteins through precision fermentation. “Biotechnology can also reduce or eliminate food quality variations, dependency on imports, and price fluctuations due to geopolitical restrictions, seasonality, and epidemics, leading to more resilient food systems and food security.” 

According to Dogenski, precision fermentation stands out as a powerful technology for the future of food production. “This approach involves using microorganisms with specific DNA sequences as cell factories to generate functional ingredients,” she explains.

Precision fermentation offers the advantage of reducing or even eliminating the need for traditional agriculture or livestock farming. For example, precision fermentation uses 99 percent less water, 60 percent less energy, and 97 percent fewer carbon emissions to produce milk proteins than traditional milk production.7 “Precision fermentation also has the potential to reduce pollution and eliminate the use of growth hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers involved in animal farming,” says Dogenski.

“By manipulating fermentation processes and microorganisms, it becomes possible to create tailored foods that meet the health needs and food choices of consumers,” explains Dogenski. “This is crucial to attend to the increasing consumer demand, driven by millennials and Gen Z, for foods that are ethically produced and free from allergens and growth hormones.” 

According to Allied Market Research’s report, the precision fermentation market size was valued at $1.3 billion in 2021 and is estimated to reach $34.9 billion by 2031, growing at a CAGR of 40.5 percent from 2022 to 2031.8 Rising consumer interest in plant-based diets, increased food allergy cases, and unparalleled food safety are major factors contributing to the precision fermentation market growth in the upcoming years.

These trends hold promise for advancing healthcare, improving patient outcomes, and fostering sustainability. Ongoing research and innovation in biotech are set to unlock even more opportunities for transformative advancements and positive impact on pressing global issues.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the interviewees are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the entities they represent.

References:

1.    “Mechanism of baricitinib supports artificial intelligence-predicted testing in COVID-19 patients.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7300657/.

2.    “FDA Approves Lilly and Incyte's OLUMIANT® (baricitinib) for the Treatment of Certain Hospitalized Patients with COVID-19.” https://investor.lilly.com/news-releases/news-release-details/fda-approves-lilly-and-incytes-olumiantr-baricitinib-treatment.

3.    “Knowledge atlas of antibody-drug conjugates on CiteSpace and clinical trial visualization analysis.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36686767/.

4.    “The oncology market for antibody–drug conjugates.” https://www.nature.com/articles/d41573-021-00054-2.

5.    “An overview of PROTACs: a promising drug discovery paradigm.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9763089/.

6.    “Stem cell–derived heart cells injected into first patient.” https://www.nature.com/articles/d41591-023-00027-5.

7.     “Life Cycle Assessment of Perfect Day Protein.” https://perfectday.com/blog/life-cycle-assessment-of-perfect-day-protein/.

8.    “Precision Fermentation Market Expected to Reach $34.9 Billion by 2031—Allied Market Research.” https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/press-release/precision-fermentation-market.html.