Building a Community to Change Biology for the Better
Blog Oct 21, 2019
Biological complexity is not getting any easier to unravel but utilizing the power of computers could make us better at it.
With the well-documented reproducibility crisis, elevated costs of drug and therapy manufacture and the costs of goods sold crisis, Life Sciences R&D is facing mounting challenges. These challenges are felt across all sectors, from academia to biotech, to industry.
Forward-thinking companies like Synthace are trying to help biologists overcome these challenges by giving them a software solution that can empower them to do more sophisticated science, faster.
Another way they are doing this is by championing a community that aims to foster discussion, ideas and thought-leadership around computer-aided biology, which they feel can bring forth a new era in the Life Sciences.
We caught up with Fane Mensah, Synthace’s Head of Community, to learn more about computer-aided biology and how he hopes to help drive biology forward and overcome its most pressing challenges by building a community of like-minded scientists and thinkers.
Q: Can you tell us more about yourself and how you came to launch the “computer-aided biology” community?
A: I have a passion for biology and also for networking and community building. I spent a lot of time in the lab during my undergraduate and postgraduate days, but I also spent a lot of time talking to scientists from different disciplines at networking events and conferences. I realized that a lot of the pain points in biology R&D are shared across sectors. Such as the need to do more complex experiments, but not having the time or resources to do them.
I also realized that if I could connect people, the field might be able to do something about overcoming these challenges. I feel strongly that, by enabling scientists to do more sophisticated experiments faster, we can advance biology quicker.
Computer-aided biology overcomes a lot of the pain points I was hearing about such as complexity and resource costs. But it is not well known, and people don’t understand the level to which it can help them with their experiments, and this is why I am launching the computer-aided biology community.
Q: What does “computer-aided biology” actually mean?
A: Well, in the plainest sense computer-aided biology is “using computers to help biology”. In more detail, we describe computer-aided biology as biological research, development and manufacturing using new digital techniques and next-generation hardware tools. These advances in technology are empowering scientists and engineers to work more effectively with complex biological systems.
If we look at the process of drug development, we have never before seen such complexities in biology. Whereas most new drugs at the turn of the century were chemistry-based, we have since seen a shift to larger molecules, and now we are in the new era of cell and gene therapies.
With the increased complexity in designing and producing these therapies comes physical and digital problems to solve. For example, how can we generate larger more robust datasets in the lab (physical)? And, how can we best structure or use these datasets and how can we use technologies to help address complex biological questions (digital)? This digital-to-physical transition in biology is at the center of computer-aided biology.
As we are faced with challenges to work more effectively with biology, now and in the future, it is absolutely vital to openly discuss these aspects at the intersection of biology and technology.
Q: Who is this community for and what do you hope to achieve by launching it?
A: The community brings together biologists, engineers, computer and data scientists, from industry, policy, start-ups, academia, vendors and the investment community. With them, we want to encourage discussion, collaboration, and best practices to drive biological research and development forward. When should we implement technology? What technology is already out there? And in what areas can we still innovate?
Most importantly, how are these technologies going to improve biological sciences?
These are all questions that we hope to address and share insights from thought leaders and experts in the field.
By building this new community we are aiming to fill a gap that exists at the intersection of biology and technology. We want to help the industry to overcome this disconnect because we think this would be of huge benefit to everyone.
Q: Do computers have the potential to replace biologists – and should they?
A: My answer to this is no, and I also think they never will.
The power of a good biologist is in postulating scientific questions and testing hypotheses. They should be spending time thinking about complex experiments, not performing the physical execution of laborious experiments. This is where computers can complement biologists.
In many cases, biologists are limited in their level of complexity as it is impossible to execute 100’s of experiments manually. This is something that unconsciously affects the way we design our experiments. Who would design experiments knowing they won’t be able to execute them in a desired period of time?
Well, this is where computers can help.
Computer-aided biology is not just cutting-edge robots and smart software, it is also a cultural change in the way we do biology. As soon as we are able to do more with less manual effort, we can help advance biology more quickly.
I think computers will have the potential to replace some of our manual work and assist the way we design experiments, but the biologist will always stay central to the science! Nevertheless, it is also important to discuss how biologists can stay in control of computers as this will become very important in the future.
“Computer-aided biology” describes the emerging ecosystem of tools that augment human capabilities in biological research.
Q: Where is computer-aided biology currently being implemented?
A: Because in many cases it involves expensive robots or software, it is mainly implemented in Biotech and Pharma companies where high throughput is important. But that is changing and fields such as synthetic biology, biological engineering and agricultural sciences are utilizing computer-aided approaches to investigate their biology.
Q: Where can people find out more about the community?
A: You can sign up and join the community here. We welcome anyone interested in this emerging field, whether you are an experienced user or just want to learn more about how technology is advancing the way we do biology.
We would like to build this focused community with people, not just for them. I have always been interested in learning from other people and I think this will be an important value of the community.
Fane Mensah, Synthace’s Head of Community (center).