IBM, NSF and UCSF team up to apply AI to synthetic biology, create cell design software

UC San Francisco has landed $24 million in National Science Foundation funding to set up the Center for Cellular Construction. And, with IBM ($IBM) signing up as a collaborator, the initiative plans to tap into computing power to advance a handful of cell engineering projects spanning from basic research to the cusp of real-world applications.

From a drug development perspective, some of the earlier-stage projects could ultimately have the most impact. The center is setting out to create computer aided design software for cell engineering, giving biological tinkerers access to the sort of computational capabilities that are essential to the work of their equivalents in the mechanical sciences. This will require a solid understanding of how cells organize themselves, a process that is different from how we typically think of engineering.

“The notion of engineering biology is very different from what other engineers think about. It’s not chipping pieces off a block or snapping components together--biological systems are self-organizing, and that presents both a great challenge and an incredible opportunity,” Zev Gartner, co-director of the cell center, said in a statement.

Many of the opportunities envisaged for the field of cellular engineering currently exist more in the minds of researchers than in workable prototypes or real-world products. But the research center should move the sector closer to figuring out the role engineered cells can play in treating diseases, or inform our understanding of the links between cell behavior and ill health. And, while its focus extends beyond biopharma, the center’s push to use cells as sensors has real-world uses in its sights.

The sensing project is one area IBM will contribute. “Using cells as sensors, we can develop cognitive maps that help us understand the relationships between cell structures and functions that IBM Watson can further analyze,” IBM’s Simone Bianco said. “In a sense, we are using cells to give Watson ‘microscopic eyes’ so we can better understand cellular behavior in different conditions, from complex environments to human diseases.”

If this or any of the other projects spawn technologies that could form the basis of a company, the center plans to make use of UCSF’s QB3 incubator, a 2,500-square-foot site that gives startups access to office space, wet laboratories and equipment.