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Synthetic Biology: The Sword in the Stone to Defeat Devastating Diseases

July 18, 2014
On July 17th, 2014 the House held a hearing titled: Subcommittee on Research and Technology Hearing - Policies to Spur Innovative Medical Breakthroughs from Laboratories to Patients


Dr. Harold Varmus, Director, National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) *(Really liked your DNA tie!)

Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President and Carson Family Professor, Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair, The Rockefeller University

Dr. Jay Keasling, Hubbard Howe Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biochemical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley; Professor, Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, University of California, Berkeley; Professor Department of Bioengineering, University of California, Berkeley; Director, Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center

Dr. Craig Venter, Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer, J. Craig Venter Institute, Synthetic Genomics, Inc., and Human Longevity, Inc.

This hearing featured a selection of some of the most qualified and influential professionals in the industry, all of which provided informative positions that respectfully represented the biotech industry as a whole. In general, the hearing covered ideal Federal funding for biotech, the importance of R&D and basic science research, the state of the industry in the United States and the competition with other leading nations. The witnesses shared ways to further improve the industry with ideas like more support for partnerships and providing new incentives, such as awards, to investors and investigators.

Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN), presented opening remarks:
We are already starting to see commercial applications from engineering biology. Since this emerging field could have significant economic benefit for the United States, it is important that we make the necessary federal investments in both the foundational research and across the potential application areas.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson stated that his intentions were to create a bill to help create further growth in the industry by calling for greater involvement from the Federal Government:
I have been working on a draft bill that would establish a framework for greater coordination of federal investments in engineering biology and lead to a national strategy for these investments. The bill would also focus on expanding public-private partnerships and on education and training for the next generation of engineering biology researchers. Additionally, my bill will ensure that we address any potential ethical, legal, environmental, and societal issues associated with engineering biology. It will also ensure that public engagement and outreach are an integral part of this research initiative.

Dr. Harold Varmus testified that the industry needs government involvement during the “interface” process during the invention of biotech products. He argued that this will help stimulate the biotech industry with new partnerships, and help further flourish the economy. He reiterates the need for spending on basic scientific research:
[T]he U.S. Government has a unique role in supporting basic research. At the same time, Government agencies, along with universities, private funders, and commercial entities, should be seeking ways to collaborate for at least three purposes: to learn where and how scarce resources are being committed; to seek opportunities to engage in collaborative work; and to exchange information that may accelerate progress along the full spectrum of research and development.

Secondly, Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne agreed that expenditures on basic research is inevitable to continue the growth of the industry:
[D]espite great health gains over past decades, the burden of disease continues to grow. However, if we invest adequately in basic biomedical research, we can create the knowledge that will in turn trigger private-sector investment to develop therapies to conquer such diseases. But industry will concentrate its investment in the United States only if we remain research leaders and maintain adequate incentives for R&D investment.

Dr. Jay Keasling, shared his story with his success in creating a microbe to produce a malaria fighting drug. With his experience as a professor, Keasling suggests that it is:
[T]ime for the federal government to work with academic and industrial researchers to launch a national initiative in engineering biology to establish new research directions and technology goals, improve interagency coordination and planning processes, drive technology transfer, and help ensure optimal returns on the Federal investment.

Lastly, Dr. Craig Venter highlighted the decline of NIH funding over recent years and the negative impact that this has had on the industry:
Taking this risk led to innovation that today is standard and responsible for much of the progress that’s been made in genomic sequencing. However, there are many examples where taking this risk does not pay off and companies fail, but this why it’s such an important complement to governmental research efforts. Government research should establish useful directions and create platforms for the private sector to build on and use to take risk and fail or succeed, whether it’s computation and the digital computer, the space program, the Internet, the Human Genome Project, or the Brain Initiative.

In conclusion, Venter asks the panel to recall the success of the Human Genome Project, and challenges Congress to find ways spark incentive for investors and investigators to “take (intelligent) risks” on future biotech projects. Overall, the most talked about points from the hearing include: funding for basic R&D and the role of academia, how ‘Big Data’ and ‘Clouds’ will influence the industry, patent rights and Intellectual Property and how the government can increase innovation.