An interview with Prof. David McMillen
This is the second article of a series of three in which I will be speaking about Canadian initiatives in synthetic biology. In my previous post I talked about Amino Bio, a startup company ‘pioneering accessible bioengineering in the home and school’ (you can read about it here).
This time I want to tell you about an initiative of University of Toronto that I find very exciting: the synthetic biology innovation cluster (SynBio-IC), part of the Impact Centre. I had the pleasure of interviewing Prof. David McMillen for our community who walked me through their initiative, and explained how the establishment of SynBio-IC was of paramount importance to secure funding for their synthetic biology project through the prestigious Medicine by Design grant of the University of Toronto (a multi million dollar grant whose ultimate goal is to establish a leading centre in regenerative medicine at the University of Toronto).
The Impact Centre was created in 2013 with the principal aim to bring science to society by offering a contact point between academia and industry. The Impact Centre has created different clusters that focus on the development of a particular scientific field: ‘in 2013 we started a synthetic biology cluster as part of the Impact Centre,’ says Prof. McMillen. In the past few years the cluster has grown thanks to meetings held every six months or so in which both academics and companies participate: ‘The usual format is to have the industry people come in and talk about what they do, rather than asking them to link it to synthetic biology,’ explains McMillen. ‘Industry comes to us and tells us what problems they are facing, and we have a discussion about whether synthetic biology can help solve some of those problems.’
There are several advantages to the creation of the cluster: ‘the first of which is networking. For example, getting to know people in industry can help with situations where we want to write grant proposals together with an industrial partner. [The establishment of this cluster] has created a community where people are now comfortable with each other, comfortable to contact each other whenever they want to collaborate. We had a number of grant proposals that members of the cluster have written together, both academics and industrial members.’
But meetings are not the only initiative of the synthetic biology cluster, which has also organized a summer school for the past three years: ‘Funded by a Connaught grant [originally endowed through the discovery and development of insulin as a therapeutic at the University of Toronto], we managed to bring in people from all over the world by sponsoring them to come and join the summer schools.’
It is thanks in part to the creation of this collaborative network that Prof. McMillen and his collaborators were able to secure a Medicine by Design grant for their synthetic biology project. (Medicine by Design is a CFREF grant targeted at regenerative medicine, and now funds between 20 and 30 projects covering a range of approaches). ‘This was always the intent: by creating this small community we would start to know people, and we could get leverage when writing a proposal. Our Medicine by Design proposal, a synthetic biology flavored approach to regenerative medicine, is one of the most tangible outcomes so far.’ Prof. McMillen explains that their team is somewhat unusual in the Medicine by Design community, where most groups focus on human stem cells and tissue and organ engineering. ‘We are one of the few teams that are dealing with microbes,’ explains McMillen.
The synthetic biology project aims to create a bacterium that can help trigger the renewal of the gut lining in people with chronic bowel diseases. ‘We are trying to use bioinformatic progress to understand how we could use bacteria as a way to sense intestinal inflammation, and respond to it in ways that can mitigate the damage by locally producing therapeutics.’
Once again McMillen’s project is a true example of how collaborative the synthetic biology field is. He says: ‘we are a team of six faculty including myself, all coming from different backgrounds and disciplines.’ Furthermore, ‘Even though this was an internal call of the University of Toronto, we are collaborating with people abroad, including groups in France and Texas.’
But the Impact Centre is not only about networking: another of its big mandates is to facilitate the commercialization of science: ‘One of the things that the Impact Centre offers is entrepreneurship training to mostly graduate students or postdocs, and sometimes faculty. The Centre looks for people who are passionate about turning their science into a product that can make a difference (an impact, one might say) in the world. In general these potential scientist-entrepreneurs don’t have the kind of training that would enable them to get started on creating a company to commercialize their knowledge, so the Impact Centre’s Techno program offers them crash courses in things like market research, product development, IP law, and so on. At present, we have seen over 130 start-ups coming out from the Impact Centre’s training program.’
When asked about the future of the synthetic biology field in Canada McMillen says: ‘The future of the field, especially in Canada, is a bit tricky. It has great potential, and we’re starting to see the first real commercial successes, but to date it has been a challenge to get it onto the radar of the Canadian government. One way is to have tangible successes you can point to when making an argument for more investment. We are trying to get more stories out there.’ I agree with McMillen when he states that ‘it’s better to make positive but realistic claims than to give in to the temptation to over-hype.”
‘Our project is an illustration of how difficult it is to get highly collaborative synthetic biology project funded. Several of us [the people involved in the project] had never worked together at all and probably never would have because we come from very different fields. With five or six different disciplines involved in the same project, it is hard to understand where to go and get the funds. It is a great opportunity to have the chance to work on this project and a success would also mean a chance to convince other funding agency to invest in similar multidisciplinary projects.’
The University of Toronto Impact Centre is a great example of how we should be doing science: it brings together people from the most disparate fields, it connects them, it lets them share ideas and encourages to look for unconventional solutions. I wish McMillen and his team every success in their project, as this would set a great example of collaborative synthetic biology project and hopefully convince people in Canada and all over the world to adopt the same strategy.