Blog 02 Jul 2024 

How CPI is using engineering biology to help the UK tackle global challenges

Advanced medicines, sustainable food production and manufacturing are all made possible through engineering biology. How is CPI harnessing its potential?

Yvonne Armitage

Yvonne Armitage

Principal Strategic Programme Manager

Science is undergoing a convergent revolution. Today, we can apply engineering principles combined with our understanding of biology and new technologies like machine learning to produce new products and processes more rapidly and sustainably, which can help address some of the most complex health and environmental challenges we face.

This is the power of engineering biology. Even though it may not be a household term, many of us felt the very tangible benefits of engineering biology during the COVID-19 pandemic when we saw the rapid development of new vaccine technology. 

Scientists were able to programme cells to make a specific product designed to combat diseases. A microbe, for example, can be turned into a cell factory’ using targeted modifications, producing a drug that could halt a new pandemic in its tracks.

However, medicine is just one field where the process of engineering biology is changing the face of new products. This approach has applications in industries that affect all aspects of our lives and the health of the planet, including agriculture, food production, fuels, recycling, and the manufacturing of chemicals and materials. 

Engineering biology works by combining advances in our understanding of genetics and cellular pathways with breakthroughs in reading and writing DNA and gene editing. Combining these innovations with those in computing and process chemistry, engineering biology can be truly transformative. It uses a Design, Build, Test, and Learn cycle approach to deliver the best processes faster than the more traditional biotechnology methodologies.

A flagship facility

To unlock the powerful potential of engineering biology, the UK Government has recently outlined a strategic national vision that includes £2 billion in investment over 10 years. The goal is to stimulate a broad, rich ecosystem that can safely develop, scale and commercialise the many opportunities from innovations and the underpinning science. 

There is a deep critical mass of internationally recognised science and engineering expertise in the UK, primarily academic-based lab research that pushes out new discoveries backed by the government. The Catapult network of innovation centres established by Innovate UK – part of UK Research and Innovation – pulls these discoveries through to application and commercialisation by supporting the development of research outputs.

CPI, as part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, is recognised as a flagship facility at the heart of this ecosystem that can help innovators navigate and mitigate the risks associated with developing, scaling and commercialising their products. This is built on the design-build-test-learn (DBTL) principles of interactive and iterative improvement to ensure the best outcome for new engineering biology processes. 

Biological systems, including microbes such as bacteria, yeast and fungi, can be designed to make new proteins or drugs by modifying the genetic makeup found in suitable strains. These processes are optimised using digital systems and technologies even before physical experiments are carried out, reducing resource costs. Once optimised, the challenge is to scale them to the point they are ready for commercial application. 

We supply specialist equipment and core expertise for engineering biology, including strain and bioprocess development, modelling and simulation, process engineering design, downstream processing, and, ultimately, formulation of the resulting products. We also have pilot and demonstration-scale facilities ranging from 1 millilitre to 10,000 litres and include state-of-the-art gas fermentation.

These are housed in our National Centres, which are designed to support a broad range of industry markets, including agriculture and food technology, materials manufacturing, energy, health technology, and pharmaceuticals. We are delivering impactful engineering biology projects across these areas. 

AgriTech and food

To reduce the environmental impact of food production, we need alternatives to synthetic, broad-acting chemical pesticides for protecting crops. As part of the EcoStack project, a Newcastle University-based team of researchers have developed a novel, targeted biopesticide based on spider venom. We provided expertise in fermentation and downstream processing development to help with production and formulation for scaling up pilot production. 

We will also need new ways of producing food to feed the growing global population and the animals we rely on for a lot of our diet. Sustainable alternative proteins can form part of that diet. Deep Branch has developed a way to produce food by using carbon capture to turn CO2 into protein. Its first product is a single-cell protein developed for the animal feed industry. We’re helping with design and process optimisation to improve the core fermentation process and reduce costs. 

More recently, we’ve begun collaborating with Sterling Bio Machines on an Innovate UK-funded project to develop a novel bioreactor for the production of cultivated meat which are novel alternative proteins.

Health and medicine

Engineering biology was the power behind the fastest successful vaccine manufacturing campaign in history during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lessons learned are now being used in advanced RNA vaccine production as well as treatments for other diseases, including cancer and neurodegeneration. 

Our purpose-built RNA Centre of Excellence is a GMP-certified facility dedicated to accelerating innovation in RNA vaccines and therapeutics. It is currently the only dedicated, open-access UK-based centre able to develop and manufacture lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technology for packaging and delivering RNA molecules to patients. The facility can manufacture millions of vaccine doses per year in the event of a future health emergency. 

Our ability to keep up with the increasing demand and development of new RNA therapeutics was further boosted by the announcement of the Oligonucleotide Manufacturing Innovation Centre of Excellence at the end of last year.

Sustainable manufacturing

Reaching net zero and ensuring a healthier future for people and the planet means manufacturing processes must become more sustainable. In the chemical industry, a variety of catalysts including heavy metal-based ones are used to speed up reactions, but they are often toxic, increasingly expensive and used along with flammable organic solvents and/​or harsh reaction conditions. 

A spin-out from the University of Oxford called HydRegen has developed novel biocatalysts that offer a safer, milder, and cost-effective way of catalysing chemical reactions involving hydrogenation, which traditionally uses high temperatures and pressures together with a metal catalyst to generate products for use in chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing. 

Our support for the project was critical in validating aspects of bacterial growth, enzyme production and scale-up. This enabled the researchers to pursue the formation of a spin-out company and secure private investment. 

The Centre of Expertise in Advanced Materials and Sustainability (CEAMS), also announced late last year, will provide further support for the development and commercialisation of advanced sustainable materials, potentially harnessing the power of biology to create new to the world entities for a range of applications. 

Our vision

With clear strength in engineering biology, we are well placed to ensure that the UK can build on its already significant reputation for science and engineering and generate the next generation of solutions and beneficial products. We empower entrepreneurs and innovators to harness our understanding of biological systems to engineer societal solutions to create a healthier, more sustainable future.

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CPI ensures that great inventions gets the best opportunity to become a successfully marketed product or process. We provide industry-relevant expertise and assets, supporting proof of concept and scale up services for the development of your innovative products and processes.

CPI is your innovation partner to make your ideas a reality.