"There's an app for that." Get ready for a cutting-edge twist on this common phrase. In the life sciences, researchers in the field of synthetic biology are engineering microbes to execute specific tasks, like diagnosing gut inflammation, purifying dirty water, and cleaning up oil spills. Here are five academic and commercial projects underway now that will make you want to add the term "designer bacteria" to your vocab.
1) Bacteria that can sense, diagnose and treat disorders of the gut.
Dr. Pamela Silver at Harvard Medical School has engineered non-pathenogenic strains of E. Coli bacteria, which she calls "living diagnostics and therapeutics," to accurately sense whether an animal has been exposed to antibiotics and whether inflammation is present in its intestines.
Imagine a "living FitBit" that could report on your gut health in real time.
So how does it work? "The bacteria have a genetic switch like a light switch," she explains, "and when they are exposed to an antibiotic or an inflammatory response, the light switch flips to on and the bacteria turn color." In a study that Silver and her colleagues published earlier this year, the bacteria in mouse guts turned blue when exposed to the chemical tetrathionate, which is produced during inflammation. Then, when the animal excreted waste, its feces were also blue. For safety reasons, the excreted bacteria can additionally be programmed to self-destruct so as not to contaminate the environment.
The implications for human health go way beyond a non-invasive alternative to colonoscopies. Imagine "a living FitBit," Silver says with a laugh – a probiotic your doctor could prescribe that could colonize your gut to report on your intestinal health and your diet—and even treat pathogens at the same time. Another potential application is to deploy this new tool in the skin as a living sensor. "Your skin has a defined population of bacteria and those could be engineered to sense a lot," she says, such as pathological changes and toxic environmental exposures.
But one big social question in this emerging research remains how open the public and regulators will be to genetically modified organisms as drugs. Silver says that acceptance will require "patient advocacy, education, and showing these actually work. We have shown in an animal that it can work. So far, in humans, it's unclear."
"Live biotherapeutic products" is a whole new category of drug.
2) Bacteria that can treat a rare metabolic disease.
The startup company Synlogic, based in Cambridge, Mass., has designed an experimental pill containing a strain of E. Coli bacteria that can soak up excess ammonia in a person's stomach, treating those who suffer from toxic elevated blood ammonia levels. This condition, called hyperammonemia, can occur in those with chronic liver disease or genetic urea cycle disorders. The pill is genetically engineered to convert ammonia into a beneficial amino acid instead.
Just a few weeks ago, the company announced positive data from its Phase 1 trial, in which the pill was tested on a group of 52 healthy volunteers for the first time. The study was randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled, which means that neither the researchers nor the subjects knew who was getting the active pill vs. a sham one. This design is the gold standard in clinical research because it overcomes bias and produces objective results. So far, the pill appears to be safe and well-tolerated, and the company plans to continue the next phase of testing in 2018. Synlogic's treatment stands to be the first of this category of therapy—called "live biotherapeutic products"—that will be scrutinized by the FDA when the time comes for possible market approval.
3) Bacteria that can be sprayed on land to clean up an oil spill.
"This is science fiction, but it's become a lot less science fiction in the last couple of years," says Floyd E. Romesberg, a professor of chemistry whose lab at the Scripps Research Institute in California is on the forefront of synthetic biology.
"We have literally increased the biology that cells can write stories with."
His lab has added two new letters to the code of life. At the most fundamental level, all life on Earth, including human, animal, and bacteria, relies on the four "letters" or chemical building blocks of A, T, C, and G to store biological information inside a cell and then retrieve it in the form of proteins that perform essential tasks. For the first time in history, Romesberg and his team have now developed an unnatural base pair—an X and a Y—capable of storing increased information.
"We have literally increased the biology that cells can write stories with," he says. "With new letters, you can write new words, new sentences, and you can tell new stories, as opposed to taking the limited vocabulary you have and trying to rearrange it."
The implications of his research are immense; applications range from developing therapeutic proteins as drugs, to bestowing cells with new properties, such as oxidizing oil after a spill. He imagines a future scenario in which, for example, specially engineered bacteria are sprayed on a beach, eat the oil for three generations of their life—less than a day—and then die off, since they will be unable to replicate their own DNA. Afterwards, the beach is clean.
"What we are struggling with now is the first steps toward doing that – the cell relying on unnatural information to survive, rather than doing something new yet," he says, "but that's where we are headed."
4) Bacteria that can deliver cancer-killing drugs inside tumors.
Researcher Jeff Hasty at UCSD has engineered a strain of Salmonella bacteria to penetrate cancer tumors and deliver drugs that stop their growth. His approach is especially clever because it solves a major problem in cancer drug delivery: chemotherapy relies on blood vessels for transit, but blood vessels don't exist deep inside tumors. Using this fact to his advantage, Hasty and his team designed bacteria that can sneak drugs all the way into a tumor and then self-destruct, taking the tumor down in the process.
So far, the treatment in mice has been successful; their tumors stopped growing after they were given the bacteria, and along with the use of chemotherapy, their life expectancy increased by half.
Many questions remain in terms of applicability to tumors in human beings, but the notion of a bacterial therapy remains a promising clinical approach for treating cancer in the future.
Craft beer experts couldn't tell the difference between beer brewed with regular vs. recycled water.
5) Bacteria that can convert wastewater into drinkable water.
Boston-based company Cambrian Innovation has a patented product called the EcoVolt MINI that uses microbes to generate energy through contact with electrodes. The company has collaborated with breweries across the country, taking their waste water and converting it to clean water and clean energy. Through the company's bioelectrochemical system, microbes eat the contaminants in the wastewater, and as a byproduct they produce methane, which can be converted to heat and power; in some cases, the process generates enough energy to send some back to the brewery.
"The main goal of the system is to produce cleaner water; the energy is an added product," explains Claire Aviles, Cambrian's marketing and communications manager.
The wastewater treatment is so effective that the water can be made suitable for reuse. One brewery client, for example, recently experimented with using the recycled water to brew a beer at a festival in California. They used the same recipe for two beers—one with typical city water and one with recycled water from Cambrian's system—and offered a side-by-side taste test to consumers and craft beer experts alike.
"Most people couldn't tell which was which," Aviles says.
In fact, most of the tasters preferred the beer brewed with the recycled water.
Turns out bacteria aren't always dirty after all.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."