Thomas K. Grose
"In 1987, Ronald Reagan was president, the Soviet Union still existed, and few people outside Seattle had heard of Starbucks. It was also the last year that any pharmaceutical company released a major new antibiotic. That’s because antibiotics cost billions to develop from scratch and are money-losers for Big Pharma. Meanwhile, because of overuse and misuse of the drugs, disease-causing bacteria are becoming resistant to common antibiotics. Health experts are warning that a looming post-antibiotics era could make even routine operations life-threatening, triggering a health crisis of epidemic proportions.
On the front lines of the battle against the bugs is James J. Collins, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University and a pioneering researcher in the burgeoning area of synthetic biology. This new field involves designing biological parts and systems, or redesigning existing biological systems, mainly for healthcare therapies or renewable-energy production. Collins calls it “an evolution of genetic engineering that really does bring engineering into bioengineering.” By that he means it involves the creation of synthetic controls and logic-based systems within genomes. It’s difficult, complicated work that requires “a lot of trial and error.” That’s where systems biology comes in: a top-down approach to figure out how organisms function and how molecular components fit together.
Collins believes his research in synthetic biology and systems biology will lead to ways to reinvigorate existing antibiotics. “Can we make what we have better? That’s really our sweet spot,” he says. It’s also a way to replenish the antibiotic armory that’s cheaper and faster than developing new drugs. In 2012, Collins cofounded EnBiotix, a Boston start-up, which already has a potential winning formula for boosting some antibiotics with the addition of trace amounts of silver. Early tests show that silver “significantly improves their [antibiotics] killing efficiency by 10 to 1,000 fold,” he calculates....."