Engineering living therapeutics with synthetic biology

Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2021 Dec;20(12):941-960. doi: 10.1038/s41573-021-00285-3. Epub 2021 Oct 6.


The steadfast advance of the synthetic biology field has enabled scientists to use genetically engineered cells, instead of small molecules or biologics, as the basis for the development of novel therapeutics. Cells endowed with synthetic gene circuits can control the localization, timing and dosage of therapeutic activities in response to specific disease biomarkers and thus represent a powerful new weapon in the fight against disease. Here, we conceptualize how synthetic biology approaches can be applied to programme living cells with therapeutic functions and discuss the advantages that they offer over conventional therapies in terms of flexibility, specificity and predictability, as well as challenges for their development. We present notable advances in the creation of engineered cells that harbour synthetic gene circuits capable of biological sensing and computation of signals derived from intracellular or extracellular biomarkers. We categorize and describe these developments based on the cell scaffold (human or microbial) and the site at which the engineered cell exerts its therapeutic function within its human host. The design of cell-based therapeutics with synthetic biology is a rapidly growing strategy in medicine that holds great promise for the development of effective treatments for a wide variety of human diseases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Engineering / methods*
  • Cell- and Tissue-Based Therapy / trends
  • Gene Regulatory Networks
  • Genetic Engineering / methods
  • Genetic Engineering / mortality*
  • Humans
  • Synthetic Biology* / methods
  • Synthetic Biology* / trends