Designing Proteins Bit by Bit
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“What Cell-Free is really about is being able to move away from the concept of discovering drugs or proteins or novel enzymes and actually being able to design them.”
Tom Meany, Co-Founder and CEO of Cell-Free Technology is taking a unique approach to proteomics technology. Part of a small team based out of Open Cell, itself a unique science space located in a set of shipping containers in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, Meany wants to use a combination of informatics and wet lab techniques to change how people interact with and think about proteins.
Despite having a degree in physics and being the CEO of a primarily biology-based company, Meany talks about Cell-Free more like a computer scientist. “We make great software to allow people to interact with the back end, which is the lab. So, our back end, instead of it being like an Amazon server farm or a Google server farm, is a wet lab where we do experiments with the biotechnology, and in particular, our kind of specialty is cell-free protein expression.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Cell-Free’s BioBits technology utilizes a technique that breaks down cells, and removes the transcriptional and translational machinery that allows them to make functional proteins from genetic code. By isolating this machinery in an in vitro “microfactory”, Cell-Free can use the machinery to build proteins based on whatever nucleotide base sequence is sent to them. The process couldn’t be much easier for Cell-Free’s clients, says Meany: “You could text message it to us, you could email it to us, you could put it in our web form, you can securely send it via encrypted mail, whatever works for you, but get us that sequence, the Gs, Ts, As and Cs, and we will produce in-house that particular protein in a high-throughput way using cell-free protein expression.”
Meany suggests that by taking the protein machinery out of the cells that usually house it, the Cell-Free team can produce protein models up to 100 times faster than traditional lab-based processing. He’s keen to highlight the flexibility of this approach – virtually any protein can be generated: “Those proteins could be like the protein found in your body, your hair, like keratin, or your fingernails, or it could be a protein like a drug, or it could be a material like a fabric cotton or wool.” Meany, ever the multi-disciplinarian, says the utility of BioBits to biologists is similar to how engineers or architects use CAD (computer-aided design) software to see what a design would look like before actually building the product. “If you’re considering building a car, for instance, the first thing you’re going to do is to use CAD software to see what the stresses and strains on the wheel bearings are. You’re going to CAD everything if you’re doing any engineering project. In a way, BioBits is like a really early stage prototyping tool for people to work with in biotechnology.”
Cell-Free are riding on the back of the surge in interest in the proteome that has been driven by the huge availability of genomic information and advances in analysis techniques. If researchers could quickly generate their proteins of interest from a simple DNA sequence in as little as 30 minutes, as Cell-Free propose, the average time of a proteomics workflow could be cut down immensely. Meany wants to focus in on better profiling of untranslated regions, such as promoters and ribosomal binding sites, to bring more information to Cell-Free’s clients.
The simplicity and speed of BioBits could also open up proteomics to those outside the scientific bubble – Meany highlights that a colleague is working with representatives from the textiles industry to generate new dyes and materials. Regardless of who is using the technology, it seems clear that BioBits has the potential to change how we think about proteins, and whether you are a physicist, biologist, or fashion designer, that’s pretty exciting.