When the human genome sequence was first mapped in 2001, the thought of using such genetic code to print vaccines on a lab bench was far from reality.
That kind of technology could allow doctors to personalize medicine at their patients’ bedsides or fight epidemics halfway around the world. Or it could allow oncologists to print medicine tailored to target the specific mutations of a patient’s tumor. One day, it could let people print customized prescriptions inside their homes.
These possibilities are close to becoming real thanks to technology that uses digital genetic code to chemically synthesize DNA strands overnight—essentially printing out biological material on demand.
“You can think about it as biological teleportation,” says
vice president of DNA technology at Synthetic Genomics Inc., the company behind the Digital to Biological Converter. “All the functions and characteristics of all living things are written into the code of DNA. So if you can read and write that code of DNA, then in theory it can be reproduced anywhere in the world.”
The Digital to Biological Converter, dubbed the DBC by its creators, operates like a biological fax machine: In roughly 24 hours, the device turns digitized DNA code into synthetic biological material, such as proteins and viruses, with about 75% accuracy. It does this by chemically producing small pieces of DNA code, called oligonucleotides, and stitching those snippets together using a complicated process known in the field as “Gibson Assembly,” named for Dr. Gibson.
The DBC isn’t yet commercially available, in part because the prototype is about the size of a grand piano and its accuracy rates, while satisfactory for a prototype, aren’t high enough for widespread use. A single change to a DNA strand, intentional or not, “could mean the difference between a cell being alive or dead or a medicine working or not,” says Dr. Gibson.
Synthetic Genomics—launched and formerly run by genome-mapping pioneer
J. Craig Venter
—already has evidence of its technology’s potential. In 2013, before the DBC prototype was operational, scientists from the lab worked with Chinese officials to manufacture a vaccine for an avian-flu strain. While the company didn’t use the DBC, Dr. Gibson says the underlying science is the same and the 2013 effort, which helped produce DNA samples to make a vaccine in 12 hours and potentially save “hundreds of lives.”
The technology’s potential to create vaccines for fighting epidemics is among its most promising applications. Making influenza vaccines today typically involves isolating the virus in a sick patient’s mucus, sending that sample to a facility, injecting the virus into chicken eggs and letting it grow for five to six months before a viable vaccine is ready. The DBC could virtually eliminate that laboratory period, says Dr. Gibson, by printing DNA to make vaccines tailored to regional viral mutations.
A prototype of the DBC was unveiled to the public in a peer-reviewed article published in Nature Biotechnology in May 2017. The instrument was so novel that even synthetic biology experts were struck by the sci-fi quality of the proof of concept.
“It kind of reminds you of Star Trek,” says
a Harvard Medical School professor of biochemistry and systems biology who has collaborated with Dr. Venter’s nonprofit research institute in Maryland for over five years. “It’s very forward-looking.”
Scientists at Synthetic Genomics estimate the DBC will be available to the research community in three to five years. Until then, the company is selling a modified device, called the BioXp System, that prints genetic material using preloaded reagents for $65,000 to $80,000. The BioXp is currently used only for research by pharmaceutical and biotech companies, universities and government institutions.
In the meantime, Dr. Gibson and his team are working to make the device smaller, faster and more accurate. The newest iteration of the DBC occupies about one-third of the space of the earlier prototype and has accuracy rates “well above 95%.”
Write to Laine Higgins at firstname.lastname@example.org