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22 October, 2020 - 23:20 By Tony Quested

Fusion of maths and biology for coding human cells takes giant stride

bit.bio, a Cambridge biomedical startup backed by Silicon Valley investors, has partnered with the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences, marking a milestone in the fusion of mathematics and biology for coding human cells. 

The partnership, which aims to read out and reprogram all human cells like software, will challenge the conventional understanding of cell biology, mathematics and biological engineering. 

The partnership heralds the fusion of previously separate industries such as software and synthetic biology to create a new industry in the industrial-scale production of human cells for biomedical testing and treatment.

Currently, cell therapies for diseases such as cancer are hampered by the lack of available human cells, while drugs tested on animals have a 97 per cent failure rate, partly due to differences between animal and human cells.

Synthetic biology, the redesign of organisms for new purposes, has been hindered by the difficulty in unlocking the fundamental laws governing cell identity. 

This new partnership aims to unlock the ‘operating system of life’ to facilitate the first mass-production of human cells for research and therapy purposes.

bit.bio, based at Babraham Research Campus, is backed by leading biotech investors who include Rick Klausner, the former US National Cancer Institute director. 

It has already created the first large-scale, high-purity batches of neurons, muscle cells and oligodendrocytes and has developed a patented technique that could custom-build any human cell. 

The company boasts a stellar scientific team including Dr Roger Pedersen, one of the pioneers of human stem cell biology and Dr Marius Wernig, a trailblazer in cell reprogramming and co-director of the Stanford Stem Cell Institute.

The London Institute for Mathematical Sciences is a private physics and maths research centre where scientists can commit themselves full-time to research. Its board includes a former chief scientific adviser to the Government and a former chief scientist at the Ministry of Defence. 

The London Institute has previously been funded by DARPA to uncover fundamental laws in biology and has led pioneering work in similar fields from the geometry of genome space to the models of genetic regulatory networks.

Dr Mark Kotter, founder and CEO of bit.bio, said: “This collaboration is incredibly exciting as we work on a paradigm shift in biology, moving it from an observational to a predictive science.

“Over the past decade have learned that biology can be viewed as a software. Our collaboration with LIMS will help to decode the ‘operating system of life’. 

“This will unlock opportunities, including a new generation of cell therapies for tackling diseases such as cancer and dementia, accelerating drug development and could even help us combat pandemics of the future.”

Dr Thomas Fink, founder and director of the London institute for Mathematical Sciences, added: “Life is the final frontier of mathematics and the marriage of maths and biology will change the face of both disciplines. 

Decoding cellular identity will require entirely new kinds of mathematics, as well as a deeper understanding of machine learning. 

“Living organisms exhibit extraordinary concision and elegance, the hallmarks off mathematical structure. The human genome amounts to just three gigabytes of data. But viruses, a mere seven kilobytes, can redirect it by calling up just the right subroutines in a similar way to how modular software works. Uncovering the operating system of life could enable us to engineer human cells as readily as we do software.”

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