CU Boulder Alum is named one of MIT’s Innovators Under 35 for her work with amino acids
LEGO blocks and dragons might not be the first things you think about when it comes to biochemistry. But for Tina Boville (PhDBiochem’17), each represents where she started and how far she has come today.
“When I was little, I read these books called The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey,” Boville says. “Those have bioengineered dragons; and I thought we should use genetic engineering to make whatever we need, and it’ll be useful for everybody.”
Fast forward from dragons to an internship during and after her undergraduate experience at the University of Colorado Boulder, and that line of thinking sprouted productive seeds.
“I got an internship at Amgen (a biotech company) for just the summer, but then I was able to stay on for a couple more years,” Boville says.
“Everybody (at Amgen) is really enthusiastic about the science, you're working on a project that is directly relevant to human health, and you’re able to help people.”
Boville is now the CEO of Aralez Bio, a company that provides sustainable alternatives to chemical manufacturing by creating, among other things, non-canonical amino acids.
“These are molecules that you can use to construct larger chemical or biological molecules.” Boville says. “Just like with LEGOs, you’re going to want amino acids in different shapes and sizes to build what you need.”
“You can imagine that if combining just the 20 standard amino acids generates all the diversity of life, then if you had more building blocks, you’d be able to do even more.”
Using a process called directed evolution, Boville engineered natural enzymes that then produced these amino acids, which are very important chemicals used in the production of medicines treating everything from migraines to diabetes. They are also used in agriculture.
This new method pioneered by Boville is not only more efficient than the previous method used to produce these amino acids, it’s also much faster.
“The application of this technology can have a big impact in pharmaceuticals and agriculture,” Boville says.
Before, chemicals made for pharmaceuticals and agriculture might take weeks, even months, to create. Now, Boville’s process creates amino acids overnight with far less waste. This sustainable production is new to the world of biochemistry, so much so that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) took notice, and named her one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35.
The Innovators Under 35 is an annual list that recognizes those who are working toward a better world from fields as far-reaching as communications to energy to biotechnology. Notable recipients of the award, which is in its 20th year, include JB Straubel, the co-founder of Tesla Motors, and Feng Zhang, a gene editing technology pioneer.
The application of this technology can have a big impact in pharmaceuticals and agriculture."
While Boville appreciates the recognition, attracting new interest in sustainability is the true prize.
“It’s good that people are recognizing the importance of green chemistry and clean tech in general.” Boville says.
Boville, who is also a fellow with Activate, co-founded Aralez Bio in 2019 with 2018 Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold and fellow postdoc David Romney, and considers it one of the lucky ones in the current COVID-19 pandemic. While other labs are closing due to the pandemic’s impact, her lab is able to push through the current situation.
“Startups are navigating uncertainty with funding, supply chains, safety and morale. It’s certainly a tough time for everyone,” Boville says.
Despite the pandemic, this past summer Boville’s company figured out how to have an undergraduate intern come in and contribute ideas to the current workload. For Boville, this is one of those full circle moments in life, going from intern to choosing one.
“It’s definitely exciting to pass that knowledge on and see how people who haven’t been thinking about this problem the way you have for so long, how they can have a different take and bring new ideas that we hadn’t even thought about.”