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Synthetic Biology and the Environment

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-11-01-2020
Volume 40
Issue 11

SynBio opens new environmental sustainability possibilities for pharma.

Environmental concerns are the first aspect of sustainability that engages many people. That was certainly my path, learning about greenhouse gases, carbon credits, and biofuels. But important as these issues are, they’re not unique to biopharma, and our sector isn’t a major source of obvious environmental damage. In response, much of the focus has been on social impacts, especially healthcare innovation and access to medicine, and equitable long-term governance, the “S” and “G” components of ESG strategy.

Perhaps it’s time for that to change. I recently had the pleasure of attending the SynBioBeta 2020 Global Synthetic Biology conference, and was struck by a disconnect between the amazing opportunities this new field is creating on one side, and the limited focus of biopharma sector participation on the other. George Church was there from Harvard, talking about potential “moonshots” like universal vaccines and de-extinction for large herbivores to mitigate climate change in Siberia. Start-up companies were talking about new processes for making industrial proteins, creating synthetic meats, and engineering crops to deal with changing climate. Even a few large consumer products and agtech companies were there, talking about new foods and beverages, and biomaterials inspired by spider silk.

Sandor Schoichet

For biopharma, it was the R&D and external innovation folks who were there, seeking new research tools and therapeutics. The “Pharma meet SynBio” session, for example, focused on accelerating therapeutic and vaccine development. Other biopharma-oriented sessions discussed “printing” vaccines, designer enzymes, and sorting cells with light. But as exciting as these technologies are, much of the conference was focused elsewhere, on the long-term potential of engineering biology to create new biomaterials, lower-energy manufacturing processes, and enable a circular carbon economy—all areas that might help biopharma companies address our own environmental concerns.

John Cumbers, CEO of SynBioBeta, said, “Computation, automation, and the ability to read, write, and edit genetic material, are poised to change the way biopharma works. Synthetic biology brings these disciplines together to provide new platforms not only for drug discovery, but for production, delivery, packaging, and disposal as well.” It’s those last few points that I want to focus on now, as they may hold the key to meeting emerging biopharma environmental challenges.

Until now, environmental sustainability has not been seen as a core component of biopharma business and operational strategy.Though that is changing with breakthrough commitments to carbon neutrality, and even net-positive impact, from the likes of Novartis, Biogen, and GlaxoSmithKline, the legacy is that environmental applications aren’t top of mind for the R&D and external innovation staff that typically attend events like SynBioBeta.

Biopharma companies should move toward a broader perspective on environmental impacts, beyond the gateway topics of reducing carbon emissions, energy and water use, and landfill. Much of our impact comes indirectly, through our global supply chains and manufacturing technology, product packaging, and delivery processes. Product disposal is another challenge, both recovery of unused medications and environmental remediation for those that have been used and passed along. The growing threat of anti-microbial resistance can also be seen as an environmental impact, one that healthcare systems worldwide must cope with.

Thinking effectively about sustainability requires not only risk reduction—doing less bad—but seizing opportunities for positive change as well. Can we not just remove toxic chemicals from a production step, but radically reduce its energy requirements? Can we not just reduce packaging, but reengineer products and delivery processes to eliminate cold chain and simplify administration? Can we not just come up with a better medication return method, but engineer drugs that decompose safely and rapidly? Can we use our central position in the healthcare value chain to make a positive difference for society beyond the direct value of our products?

With all the exciting new technology on display, why weren’t there more of our colleagues at the conference, looking for novel solutions in production, distribution, and product stewardship? An important step would be for biopharmas to start reviewing the scope and remit of their external innovation teams, ensuring that they are looking for technology and making connections not only for R&D, but for their manufacturing, supply chain, packaging, access, and stewardship teams as well. Next year, I hope to see a much broader biopharma presence at the conference, seeking opportunities to achieve our environmental as well as therapeutic goals.

Sandor Schoichet, Director, Meridian Management Consultants, and Co-Founder of the Biopharma Sustainability Roundtable. He can be reached at sschoichet@meridianmc.com.