2024-07-11| Interviews

Synthetic Biology’s Innovator Dr. John Cumbers – Addressing Inefficiencies in Biopharma and Economic Sustainability

by Denisse Sandoval
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Dr. John Cumbers addresses the industry’s ongoing challenges as a result of ineffective management.

GeneOnline conducted an exclusive interview with Dr. John Cumbers, Founder and CEO of SynBioBeta LLC., an innovation network dedicated to the advancements of synthetic biology (synbio). During the interview, Dr. Cumbers discussed the current struggles faced by the biopharma industry, including ineffective drug development practices, and how the synbio field provides a unique approach in its solutions to these challenges.

Dr. Cumbers stands out as a visionary leader in the rapidly evolving field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology involves designing and constructing new biological parts, devices, and systems, or redesigning existing biological systems for useful purposes. During the interview, he expressed how his company, SynBioBeta, was born through his passion for bringing people together with the purpose of a mutual exchange of knowledge. Here, SynBioBeta promotes partnerships by connecting industry leaders, investors, and entrepreneurs. He has dedicated his career to advancing biotechnology possibilities. He aims to use synbio to foster an environment where startups can thrive and make a significant industry impact.

Equitable Healthcare Access for Sustainable Biopharma

Dr. Cumbers started by addressing the significant structural issues encountered within the biopharma industry as economic models progressively fail to function. He expressed, “The only products that tend to be successful these days are multi-billion dollar drugs. Such a high cost for inefficient drug development in turn leads to a deeply flawed system, as only a small fraction of drugs succeed, explained Cumbers. “Only a small percentage, around 2% to 4%, of drugs are successful in their efficacy,” he notes. Due to the low success rate, drug prices for approved medications must cover the costs of numerous failed attempts, leading to industry instability. This results in an industry that will continuously struggle to generate profits, while patients face the burden of excessive costs.

Addressing these economic inefficiencies in the industry is crucial, according to Cumbers. He quoted 2002’s Physiology or Medicine 2002 Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Sydney Brenner, stating, “You’ve got metabolomics, genomics, and transcriptomics, but the only ‘omics’ that matter in biology is economics.” Despite transformative efforts and technological advancements, the success and accessibility of biopharmaceuticals relies on economic influence and financial sustainability. Therefore, strategic economic planning is crucial to ensure equitable healthcare access. 

Synbio and AI to Enhance Resilient Healthcare Solutions

According to Dr. Cumbers, by utilizing the power of synthetic biology, new treatments will be able to be developed, and unimaginable solutions may become possible. “We still don’t fully grasp the rules of biology. It’s incredibly difficult to program a cell to do what we want. However, that’s the big goal driving the whole field forward,” he remarked. 

This is where the influence of computerized technology may portray pathways to achieve some of these previously unthinkable possibilities. It is here that Cumbers expressed his excitement surrounding the intersection of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence (AI). He said, “AI and large language models, particularly the automation of data collection can be used to enhance large language models, allowing them to predict genetic sequences.” This symbiotic use of technologies accelerates discoveries and enhances genetic engineering, increasing the availability of effective therapies and sustainable solutions. Cumbers’ transformative approach extends beyond healthcare, disrupting industries like agriculture and chemical manufacturing.

Mitigating Climate Change and Reducing Carbon Footprint Through Synbio

One of Dr. Cumber’s main beliefs is that synthetic biology holds the potential to address the ongoing climate crisis. He asserted, “Synthetic biology is the solution for reducing our carbon footprint. Ultimately, It falls down to economics, but it is the only solution that’s going to work.” Synbio’s ability to engineer organisms to produce biofuels, biodegradable materials, and other sustainable products will allow it to significantly reduce the need for fossil fuels and, hence, decrease the overall environmental impact. “I’m currently focused on this rinse-and-repeat method we’ve been refining for 13 years for SynBioBeta. Now, our next big move is scaling it up, which will push both our company and the industry forward,” explained Cumbers. This approach will promote environmental sustainability across industries and ensure economic models balance profitability and environmental responsibility.

SynBioBeta’s Long-term Goals Through Synthetic Biology Addressing Global Challenges

Cumbers highlighted that his primary objectives were to build a more diverse community around synthetic biology. He stresses that awareness surrounding the rapidly evolving field of synbio should be raised. Cumbers expressed, “We understand the fundamental nature of life, and 95% of people don’t, granting us a unique advantage others do not possess. I want that 5% to turn into 100%.” He envisions a future where synbio will offer innovative solutions to the global challenges that are currently being faced. His ongoing focus is to support technologies that aim to revolutionize industries and sustainably improve overall human health.

The field of biotechnology is set to progress at an unprecedented rate, and synbio is further poised to effect drastic changes across the board. Since synbio is already geared to address the multitude of biopharma’s structural challenges, the idea of Dr. Cumbers is that you either keep up or fall behind in this rapidly developing area. The ultimate goal of SynBioBeta is to revolutionize the synbio field and create a more effective and equitable healthcare system for all. As Cumbers emphasized, imminent change will disrupt every industry with biotechnology at its forefront. Those who are unaware or unprepared will inevitably face displacement through innovation, as these advancements are poised to surpass existing industrial models.

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