In the current age of life sciences, we have come to invent better and better drugs that are increasingly efficient in relieving pain and treating diseases. Despite this positive trend, the world continuously faces serious medicine shortages and in many parts of the world drugs and painkillers may either be too costly or inaccessible altogether. Christina Smolke, Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering at Stanford University, is tackling these problems in the supply chain by applying a revolutionary new method of drug production. Since the amount of medicines that can be produced worldwide is still limited by the compounds that can be gathered from natural sources – the opium used for painkillers still needs to be harvested from poppies – she skips this step and instead reengineers nature to produce active compounds in much larger quantities. By genetically modifying yeast, Christina and her research team achieved what had been viewed as impossible by many experts: the engineering of a yeast strain that is able to produce opioids which in turn can be used in painkillers. At Falling Walls, Christina explains the promises of this new era of synthetic biology and shows how the humble yeast organism could become the next superstar of the pharma industry.
An Associate Professor of Bioengineering and of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University and leader of the Smolke Lab, Christina Smolke is one of the spearheads in the young field of synthetic biology. Making use of advances in chemistry, biology and technology, synthetic biology designs biological systems that do not yet exist in the natural world. By engineering yeast to synthesize opioid drugs, she aims at making pain medicine more available in developing countries. Her breakthrough could lead to much faster and cheaper drug production and could bring on an age of more affordable medicine.