June 5, 2024

June 5, 2024

5YF Episode #17: Colossal Biosciences CEO Ben Lamm

Defeating death, programming life, resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth, AI’s blueprint for biotech, and the future of genetic engineering w/ Colossal Biosciences CEO Ben Lamm

5 year frontier

Episode Transcript

Future of genetic engineering: programming life

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Today, we tackle the small topic of the future of life and death.

We can start to engineer life. Shape life.

Our ability to manipulate DNA, the building blocks of life, has greatly progressed since the landmark arrival of the gene-editing process CRISPR more than 12 years ago. It’s time to get an update on what is occurring at the cutting edge of genetic engineering today and how a new breed of biotech companies are transforming science fiction into science fact.

To dive deep into the topic, I sat down with one of the most revolutionary examples of this new wave of biotech companies: Colossal Biosciences. This Texas-based startup, funded to the tune of $225 million, is on a mission to bring back extinct species and evolve humanity’s ability to program life in the process.

My 5 Year Outlook:
  • Humans will defeat death
  • All drugs will be created in software
  • Genetic engineering is inescapable

Curious? Read on as I unpack each below 👇🏼

Humans will defeat death

What happens to death if genetic engineering enables us to both cure diseases and slow cellular decline? If modern science equips our bodies with the ability to successfully fight off killers and rejuvenate degrading cells, then aging would be within our control. If aging is within our control, does that challenge the inescapable end of all life: death?

Aging is a disease state. We know what fundamentally causes aging

The first thing scientists who believe in the concept of humans conquering death ask is for us to reframe aging as a disease—a complex health problem that can and will be solved given enough time and scientific progress. These scientists advocate for the same concerted and large-scale efforts used to combat killers like heart disease and cancer to be applied to aging. This reframing allows for a pragmatic plan to mobilize talent and capital around life extension efforts such as epigenetic reprogramming and cellular rejuvenation, which are currently at the scientific fringes.

Diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, etc are 100% preventable.

Chatting with Ben, I observed three major converging trends that, in my eyes, reinforced the potential for human longevity well beyond what we experience now. I identify them as:

  1. A more transparent human body, resulting from the data-capturing devices we wear daily and the falling cost of genetic sequencing.
  2. The ability to run experiments at scale on a person in software (see the 'All drugs will be created in software' section below).
  3. High-precision gene editing and stem cell rejuvenation, driven by the constantly advancing field of CRISPR.

These three trends have only recently emerged in the 21st century and are coming together to make us far more effective at staying ahead of disease, improving our health span, and putting us on a trajectory to continuously extend life.

All drugs will be created in software

It is worth emphasizing the growing importance software and AI are having in accelerating innovation around longevity.  

The ability to design and simulate the physical world in software is a macro theme I identify across multiple industries and often discuss. However, its greatest potential impact lies in scientific discovery and healthcare. The term 'in silico' has been used since the 1980s to describe experiments conducted on a computer rather than in a lab or in vivo. What has changed is a dramatic step function in the complexity, speed, and accuracy of in silico experiments.

We use AI to run our (gene) edits through and it recommends what different genetic engineering tools to use

A modern biotech company like Colossal is heavily oriented towards software engineers and data scientists. They use copious amounts of computing power to run simulations of different gene-editing variants and their complex impacts on the rest of the organism. Digital simulation is fast, safe, cost-effective, and can scale infinitely more than what occurs in a wet lab. Harnessing this capability will allow for an explosion in experimentation and variant testing to drive towards the desired results.

Google DeepMind's and Isomorphic Labs' AlphaFold 3 is a great example of state-of-the-art technology in this realm. Their recently released AI model expands upon its predecessors by not only predicting the structures of proteins but also modeling the interactions of a wide range of biomolecules, including DNA, RNA, and small molecules. It unlocks the ability to predict complex molecular interactions with unprecedented accuracy. For example, it achieves around 76% accuracy in predicting protein-ligand interactions and about 65% for protein-DNA interactions. This enhancement enables more precise drug design, as scientists can better understand how potential drugs will interact with their targets at the molecular level.

Such innovation not only collapses the timeframe to create new drugs and makes in silico the default for discovery, but also opens up the role of AI-led discovery. As models become more sophisticated and computing power increases, so does the ability for scientists to give AI prompts on the problems they want to solve, allowing AI to search for the best solutions. Add the promise of quantum computers, which can run multiple experiments simultaneously rather than sequentially, and you can envision a takeoff moment in our ability to discover and design new drugs and interventions.

Genetic engineering is inescapable

The current pace of progress gives the impression that the genie is already out of the bottle when it comes to manipulating genes and cells.

From the drugs we produce to the food we eat and even to the children we have, it seems humanity is destined to embrace genetic engineering. Resistance to this technology will gradually diminish with each success, whether it be healthier embryos or higher-yielding crops. On our current innovation trajectory, it appears that scientific and technological barriers will fall before societal ones.

We are moving from an age of scientific discovery to an age of scientific engineering.

Noble efforts by Colossal to preserve the world's biodiversity and rewild our Earth will undoubtedly spin off a growing toolkit to influence the building blocks of life. From artificial wombs to lab-grown organs, the future has already arrived. These advancements promise not only to revolutionize medicine and agriculture but also to offer unprecedented solutions to some of the most pressing environmental challenges.

For instance, the development of artificial wombs could transform reproductive health, allowing for safer pregnancies and the possibility of bringing endangered species back from the brink of extinction. Lab-grown organs hold the potential to end the shortage of transplantable organs, saving countless lives and reducing the burden on healthcare systems worldwide. Will society say no to such innovations?

Moreover, Colossal's pioneering work in de-extinction and genetic engineering sets a bold precedent for how we can harness technology to restore lost species and ecosystems. Their goal to reintroduce the Woolly Mammoth by 2028 is not just a scientific marvel but a testament to the transformative power of genetic science. By rewilding landscapes with species that once roamed them, we can restore ecological balance, combat climate change, and foster a more sustainable future.

I personally am excited to see Mammoths roam the frosted tundras, signaling that the scientific barn door has been opened.Onwards!

- Daniel Darling

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