New Applications of Synthetic Biology to Cancer Research Challenges: 2020 Virtual Jumpstart

A Jumpstart to Expand Capacity to Address Important Cancer Questions by Reengineering Biology

Join a 3-day workshop to develop novel cross-disciplinary collaborations!

Applications are due August 31st 2020 (Midnight Pacific Time). Apply Today!


Synthetic biology approaches are rapidly advancing and primed to transform cancer research. To capitalize on the opportunity and drive synthetic biology development to tackle pressing cancer research challenges, this three-day workshop will bring together diverse research and clinical communities across cancer and synthetic biology expertise areas to explore the possibilities and launch exciting research collaborations.

Date and Location

The event will be held online, and will take place on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—October 26th, 28th, and 30th

Applicants must commit to participating for the entire duration of the Jumpstart if selected as a meeting participant.

There will also be some required prework and light background reading/viewing.

The Challenge

Technological developments in cellular and molecular engineering and computational methods have spurred new engineering approaches and advanced capacity to reengineer biology to address important cancer research questions. These approaches, termed synthetic biology, focus on the design, construction, and characterization of improved or novel biological systems using engineering design principles. Expanding beyond traditional genetic engineering methods, which are often concentrated on individual genes and proteins, synthetic biology adopts a more systematic approach targeting entire pathways, networks, and whole organisms with quantitative control and modulation. Examples include memory circuits to track and report single cell exposures and lineage, biosensors to detect and report disease and treatment response markers, feedback-controlled circuits to deliver defined therapeutic outputs, and a range of other possibilities.

While the technology has developed at a rapid pace, the overall application to cancer research has been limited. To address this, the meeting aims to: 1) expand collaborations between the synthetic biology and cancer research communities and 2) increase awareness of research capabilities, needs, and driving questions. The Jumpstart will serve to bridge the cancer and synthetic biology/cell engineering communities to leverage and advance the unique capabilities of synthetic biology to tackle cancer research questions.

Who Should Apply

We encourage researchers and clinicians at all levels of seniority with diverse expertise across the continuum of cancer research and all areas of synthetic biology and complementary fields including, but not limited to: engineering, systems biology, chemistry, protein engineering, materials science, physics, genetics, microbiome, computational sciences, data science, mathematics, and cell biology to consider how your experience could help shape and transform the future of cancer research and biology-based technologies.

Irrespective of expertise, we are most interested in new, innovative ideas and original thinking that arise from new collaborations between people of diverse backgrounds and varying expertise.

Approximately 100 applicants will be selected to participate in the Jumpstart on the basis of the interests, expertise, and other characteristics solicited in the application. Most participants are expected to be academic faculty, from early career to senior investigators. Original thinkers from outside academia (e.g., industry) or earlier career stages are also encouraged to apply. When selecting participants, consideration will be given to balance across a range of diverse disciplinary experience and expertise. All participants should be willing to engage in frank disclosure and assessment of ideas in a collegial and professional fashion. To facilitate open sharing, all meeting discussions will be considered a private communication and not to be shared outside of the meeting, unless approved by the contributor. NIH staff, in consultation with the Jumpstart director, will review applications and select the final list of participants. All research-related application information will be kept confidential.

The Opportunity

Synthetic biology can advance research across cancer biology, prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment, and population science using engineered circuits, networks, and cells that can sense inputs, apply logic to determine a response to the inputs, and then initiate a response. Key opportunities to be explored span the continuum of cancer research including, but not limited to:

  • Cancer biology, such as synthetic cellular/molecular networks to model, probe, and perturb cancer signaling pathways in mammalian cells or biological tools to monitor and report spatiotemporal changes in pre-cancer and cancer cells in situ
  • Cancer prevention, such as engineered biological sensors to safely identify cell exposure or damage in early cancer development in vivo and deliver approaches to prevent progression
  • Cancer early detection and diagnosis, such as engineered biological components to safely identify and report short-lived, low-level, or other difficult to measure markers of disease in vivo
  • Cancer therapeutics, such as engineered cells or microbes with in vivo targeted, controlled therapeutic delivery or therapeutic action
  • Cancer population science, such as engineered systems for understanding the impact of genetic variation combined with environmental exposures (e.g. toxicants, lifestyle or dietary factors, chemical mixtures, hormones, etc.) on cancer etiology and susceptibility, including modeling impact of the timing of exposure (i.e. critical susceptibility windows, or cumulative exposures).

The Jumpstart will facilitate collaborations between experimentalists, modelers, and cancer experts. This should lead to new approaches to study the fundamental mechanisms of cancer development, progression, or response to interventions and the development and evaluation of novel diagnostic, preventive, and therapeutic strategies to human cancer.

Meeting Outcomes

New collaborative teams will form around promising research ideas and iteratively develop the concepts into realizable research projects. We encourage teams to develop applications for NIH funding opportunities and NIH staff are available to assist with identifying appropriate opportunities.

Why and How to Apply

If you want to harness the unique capabilities of synthetic biology toward solving cancer research problems, would like to explore critical cancer questions that can be solved by reengineering biology, and you want to participate in a stimulating and open exchange with a diverse, multidisciplinary range of researchers, we invite you to submit an application. If applying, please be prepared to answer questions about yourself, your work experience, your research focus, and why you are interested in and qualified for the Jumpstart. Applications will be reviewed internally by NIH staff and submitted research-related information will be kept confidential.

Application Deadline: August 31st 2020 (Midnight Pacific Time)

If you have questions or need additional information, please email our organizing team at

Applications Closed »