Week 11: Mastering the Art of Meat

This week focused on the biotechnology behind cultured meat. Unbeknownst to me, projects on in-vitro meat for food consumption had begun as early as the 2000s and only recently are we seeing the commercialisation of such cultured meat, with quite a breakthrough success. However, the success of this technology did not come without a shortage of challenges.

Firstly there is the technical aspect of engineering the cultured meat to be as close as possible in terms of taste and texture to real meat. A lot of specialised infrastructures is required to allow the cells to grow in a 3D physiology, to come close to its animal counterparts. As shared by ShiokMeats, there is limited infrastructure available in Singapore to be able to support a large scale production. And more infrastructure tends to mean more cost, which can really affect the P&L (profit and loss) of a company trying to commercialise their cultured meat. It then becomes a challenge of reducing the production cost by optimizing engineering processes, so that they can reasonably compete with existing meat alternatives in the market.

Another interesting point to note is that the timing of market penetration of cultured meat was crucial to its commercialisation too. Overcoming the technical aspect of biological engineering is one thing, but whether the market is ready to embrace the product is another thing. I think that the recent shift towards consumer awareness around sustainability around 2018 really played a big role in allowing companies like ShiokMeats and Impossible Foods to penetrate the food industry. People at this time are more accepting of clean meat alternatives and are also more willing to spend on it.

Lastly, countries like Singapore that have a limited locally produced food supply would really benefit the most from this biotechnology. It is quite encouraging to hear that the Singapore government is very supportive in this area, putting us one step closer to the goal of being self-sustainable.

I find that the biggest hurdle for this technology would be finding ways to significantly reduce the cost for it to be available to the masses. Right now only large to medium F&B chains are able to afford to put alternative meats into their menu. While the majority of other local F&B restauranteurs and even hawkers would not be as receptive, in order to keep prices low. This will always create a barrier for penetration if the prices of in-vitro meat remain as it is.

Week 10: Optimising the Development of Immunotherapy

This week we had a nice summary of immunotherapy by Dr Robert, of which included exciting class discussions that really got me thinking deeper. Much more research has to be done to better understand the immune system, especially because of the possible adverse events that may occur to each individual. At the same time, as much as I think that the idea of a universal CAR-T cell is ideal, I think that there is a chance the immune system may still consider the CAR-T cells as foreign and we are unsure of the effects of knocking out the endogenous T-cell receptor.

As for the future of immunotherapy, there is definitely a large market potential given that it could possibly the least immunogenic and more sustainable if it comes from the patient’s own immune cells. Unfortunately, I think that its application may be limited to single antigen associated diseases or tumour. We would require a better understanding of the available antigens on specific tumour to avoid any off-target effects and that’s where the biomarker libraries will play an important role.

Right now there is a huge gap in the patient information that we currently have about different kinds of diseases and cancers, so there has to be a continual effort to improve the database of real world data. I believe with a more comprehensive understanding of the disease population, we can more accurately carry out high throughput screenings to choose the right target antigens for our ideal CART cells! No wonder data solutions companies like IQVIA, are so important to clinical trials and therapeutics discovery today.

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Week 9: Beyond the lab, there is much more

I really enjoyed both the guest lecture by Chugai and particularly, our visit to EDDC. Since I am currently doing my internship at a biopharma, it was really enriching for me to be able to supplement my knowledge of drug development and clinical trials.

Firstly, I was surprised that the EDDC clinical operations team was so small. I had assumed that since EDDC is such a huge body, they would have more hands involved in the clinical trials given the number of projects they must be working on. But of course it was explained to me that they mostly outsource the work to a Contract Research Organisation (CRO) to manage the trials, and EDDC role was more of a Sponsor, or the overseeing organisation and also the one that conducts audits to ensure standards are met. Another important role that I learnt about was that EDDC was in charge of the Investigator’s Booklet (IB), an incredibly important document that helps to guide the doctors and nurses involved in human trials. I can imagine that different hospitals in Singapore might do certain procedures differently, all the more in a different country like the US where other trial sites may be.

Secondly, the importance of safety was a pertinent point made by the speaker. Safety is everyone’s role and good practices are not just for one group, but for every group involved in drug development. One bad inspection can mean the end of years of work, and that must be devastating not just for the team but for the number of people the drug could have possibly helped. An interesting thought I had was about how they implement phamacovigilance, which is the safety practice around adverse events that may happen during the trials. It is hard to imagine how they try to teach everyone involved a standard set of procedures for an unimaginable number of possible scenarios.

Week 8: Welcome to the World of Antibodies

This week’s lecture focused on antibodies and nanobodies. Before this class, I have had a special interest in antibodies and their potential for personalized therapeutics so I was looking forward to going through into this week. The assigned readings helped me to understand more about the naturally occurring antibodies and chemically synthesized binders, which basically function in a similar way.

I think that antibodies have a lot of therapeutic potential particularly because of their ability to be very readily modified to enhance the functions even further. I’m not too sure how big the difference in stability for antibodies and nanobodies are but from what I have read it’s quite a substantial difference. Nanobodies are also supposedly easier to produce, I suppose this would be true for chemically synthesized antibodies versus nanobodies.

Antibodies are the highest if not one of the highest kinds of drugs that is being approved right now so the market for antibodies is very high valued. Personally, Id like to explore if there’s more ways to modify the antibody to improve delivery to its specific target site.

Week 7: Pushing CRISPR One Step Further

This week we heard each other’s presentations for the various CRISPR applications and I was most interested in the one presented by Sophia, whereby the paper investigated the use of hairpin secondary structures to improve accuracy. I feel like there would be a lot of potential if they are able to show more accurate evidence of its effectiveness because forming the hairpin structure itself appears quite simple and straightforward. However, being based on mathematical modelling, I had a tinge of doubt towards the accuracy of the results, more so when there were no previous studies or reasons sited for choosing their modelling software used. From this it made me question how easy it is for us to take for granted certain methodology, especially when it is either well-established or commonly used.

Personally, I thought it would be easier to analyse a short paper, but I was proven wrong. My own paper was theoretical in nature so, in terms of methodology and materials, I really struggled to find points to critique. But at the same time, the short article made me appreciate every line that was written, after having combed through each line over and over again. While critiquing the paper, I kept wondering, “Why didn’t they include this (or that)?”, and that is when I realised how important it is to accurately communicate information in a succinct manner. There are certain things that seem important but may not be relevant to the current proposition. The author has to re-evaluate the direction and focus of the paper and ascertain if the content is in line with the message to be conveyed.

Week 5: The Business Behind Science

I always look forward to our field trips, so I would say that the highlight for this week would be the trip to NovogeneAIT. Before the trip, I had been to Biopolis before and I knew it to be a hub for government agencies and other government-supported research companies. From what Robson had shared during the tutorial, I had the impression that NovogeneAIT was a very big company (given that they had multiple sequencing centres around the world. I’m not sure if I was mistaken but I think he was referring to the sequencing centres of Novogene, right? NovogeneAIT being the joint venture only here in Singapore. In any case, this made me expect a much larger space, so I was very surprised when they gave us a tour of a much smaller area. Nevertheless, I think that this still impresses me because they are able to process a large number of genome samples even with this small space and equipment. It really speaks for how advanced the processing of the HiSeq and NextSeq they are using is, that these few machines alone can produce so many libraries.

On that note, it really interested me when they were talking about the eventual goal to be able to sequence a full human genome for just $100. In a matter of a few years, the price has gone down to just around a thousand dollars compared to how expensive it was before. That means that one day, sequencing will become so readily accessible at an affordable price, we might be able to advance research at an exponentially fast rate as well since genome sequencing is being applied in many scientific areas. On the other hand, it also implies the business race of manufacturing companies to design faster and more advanced processors to be able to handle even more data at a cheaper cost. Seeing the sequencing machines reminded me of the development of computers from really huge machines that take up an entire room to the laptops and iPads that we see today. I look forward to the day we will be able to have a table-top sequencer that can process as many samples as the latest model of NovaSeq today.

One of the confusing things for me was the fact that they still relied on physical servers, although they are looking at exploring cloud servers and cloud processing. One of the biggest limitations is that they have to clear the servers of old data after 45 days, and only the processed data is being backed up into their cloud server. What if a client wanted to retrieve old data that was past 45 days? Or what if they wanted the raw data for some reason? Data storage is a big issue for a company like NovogeneAIT that has to handle terabytes of data every day. I think that data management is really important not just for big companies but even on an individual level. Keeping things organised and backed up properly makes it easier if you need to pass on the data to someone else.

Week 4: More on CRISPR/Cas and NovogeneAIT

This week we had a more in-depth look at the CRISPR-Cas system for the lecture. I think that it is very exciting when you realise that we are still at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the role and functions of Cas proteins in bacteria. And yet we have already discovered Cas proteins that are able to not just produce a double-stranded break but produce a single-stranded nick and even sticky ends. Repeatedly, however, seems to be that the real bottleneck of this technology is managing the offsite targeting effects. This still leaves room for error and with regards to clinical therapeutics, this is definitely something that you would want to eliminate as much as possible. We are however in a time when CRISPR-Cas system gene therapy is likely to see way more applications, as scientists continue to understand the functions and possibly uncover more immunological defence systems in bacteria that may help us too. The assigned readings (and their diagrams) really helped me to understand the mechanism of the different Cas proteins because initially, it was difficult to conceptualise. And the lecture helped to consolidate my understanding by reiterating what I had read beforehand.

I must add that the guest tutorial by Novogene AIT was a good addition to the week as it fed my interest in the business aspect of biotechnology. It must be quite hard to “stay ahead of the competition” all the time and is probably not as simple as the speaker had made it be. Understandably there are probably some marketing strategies he is unable to reveal, even though I wanted to know how exactly do they have intel about the latest software, technology etc. Trend analysis is also something that interests me, so I was glad to hear about how they work towards trying to predict the needs of their clients beyond what they request from them, showing them that the company is able to provide more services (and at the same time making more profit!). The idea of master contracts is also pretty strategic, instead of just targeting individual labs. With Singapore being very small, however, I can see why geographic segregation is also necessary. This idea of a concerted effort really pays off, not just in business but in everyday life. It is not efficient to divide your energy in too many places. As a service provider company, working closely with government agencies/authorities is probably a good move too. In Singapore where the government nowadays concentrates its resources on a lot of data-driven projects, such contracts provide a lot of stability and reputability. Lastly, the speaker’s comment on being a service provider in today’s economy really struck out to me. Being someone who is currently thinking about having my own business one day, it was really relevant advice. With today’s sharing economy, being a service provider is very advantageous and this business model has a lot of potential given the right service in demand!