mSBW Speaker Naomi Handly on Utilizing Mammalian Cell Engineering to Cure Diseases

Organized by AIChE’s Society for Biological Engineering (SBE),  the 2024 International Mammalian Synthetic Biology Workshop (mSBW) takes place August 6–7 in Boston, Massachusetts. This is the premier meeting on mammalian synthetic biology and its applications, where leaders in synthetic biology join with experts from related fields to explore synthetic biology research, including new technologies with increasing translation into industry and clinical settings. Reserve your spot by June 28 for best rates.

We caught up with mSBW speaker Naomi Handly, the VP of Platform at Octant, Inc., to discuss the future of mammalian cell engineering, and what she’ll be speaking about at mSBW.

What inspired you to do research in this field?

We’ve made tremendous strides to be able to understand and measure biological complexity, and are continuing to learn about the connections between biological functions and disease. The last several decades have also held a technological revolution for biology – the field is ripe with innovation that can make real impact on human health. I’m excited to be at this intersection of new technology that we can utilize to solve real problems in human health at a time when the world is really excited about biology!

How do you envision this field solving some of the challenges in engineering and society?

Despite how much we’ve learned about how biological systems function, most therapeutics still don’t make it to patients. While there are a lot of reasons for this, an inability to accurately recapitulate and translate the underlying biology relevant to a disease has been a challenge. There are a bunch of methods out there to solve this problem – AI/ML, more humanized models, etc. I think that the ability to engineer mammalian cells in a way that faithfully captures biological mechanisms is another tool in our toolbox that will enable us to better develop medicines. 

What advice would you give to students or young professionals thinking about a career in mammalian engineering? 

Mammalian cell engineering is still a young field, but the technology is quickly advancing, and we’re starting to see the real-world impacts. Getting into mammalian engineering might be frustrating – the timelines are slow, there are a lot of unknowns, the applicability of your skillset to the job market might seem ambiguous, etc. Nevertheless, I encourage students and young professionals to take their time to gain mastery and experience at the ground level, rather than trying to rush up a career ladder. Being able to gain depth in the field is what will enable the entire field, and you individually, to move forward. 

What is the one big takeaway that you would like audiences to gain from your talk?

We’re at an exciting time in drug discovery! The ability to computationally design drugs has been promised since the 1980s. The advances of AI/ML over the past decade put us in a position to make that dream a reality. However, in order to effectively use generative approaches, we need precise, accurate, and iterative data – and a lot of it. We’re building the engine to disentangle how small molecules interact with complex cellular mechanisms to generate insights that scientists use to build better drugs.

Learn more about the 2024 International Mammalian Synthetic Biology Workshop (mSBW) and register today.

About SBE

Established in 2004, the Society for Biological Engineering is a technological community for engineers and applied scientists integrating biology with engineering. Members of SBE come from a broad spectrum of industries and disciplines and share in SBE’s mission of realizing the benefits of bioprocessing, biomedical, and biomolecular applications. Learn more about SBE.