A real pandemic is an awful way to put biotechnology to the test. But that’s exactly what is happening now.
The coronavirus has spread like wildfire to every corner of the globe, posing a serious threat for the foreseeable future. Millions have been infected, although a worse tragedy has been avoided thanks to widespread adoption of social distancing, public closures, and practices like handwashing and mask-wearing.
Now, the world waits as science catches up with the virus. Many new rapid tests, therapeutic treatments, and vaccine candidates are on the cusp of approval for a disease that just one year ago didn’t exist. Technology and manufacturing can take some credit for that, but we can also thank fields like synthetic biology, whose rapid design-build-test cycles help innovators go from antibodies to candidate vaccines in as little as 24 hours.
In a preview of a session at SynBioBeta 2020, which brings together leaders of the growing field of synthetic biology, I spoke with a few experts about how this research community is responding to coronavirus. Here is how they are pivoting toward Covid-19, scaling their efforts, and collaborating in the face of a pandemic.
Ginkgo Bioworks: A platform for diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines
Ena Cratsenburg is the Chief Business Officer at Ginkgo Bioworks, overseeing new partnerships and commercialization of Ginkgo’s technology and products. With her background in chemical engineering and economics, as well as a decade working for industry giants Amyris
“Covid-19 is an unprecedented challenge,” Cratsenburg says. “By leveraging innovation in biology — including the impressive advances in DNA sequencing and genetic engineering — with industrial automation and advanced computation, synthetic biology is uniquely suited to develop and provide solutions to combat the coronavirus pandemic.”
Ginkgo is deploying its platform to rapidly scale-up testing for the virus. Ginkgo is also collaborating with partners to develop and manufacture much-needed vaccines and antibody therapeutics. It has committed $25 million of access to its state-of-the-art platform to support research and development efforts for Covid-19 and is working to provide on-site testing for schools and businesses through Concentric by Ginkgo.
Distributed Bio: Blocking with antibodies
Sarah Ives began her career with Distributed Bio as a scientist developing methods and assays for validating novel vaccines in 2015. Today, she is the lead scientist for the broad-spectrum Centivax flu vaccine technology awarded a Global Grand Challenges “Ending the Pandemic Threat” grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Sarah and her research are featured prominently in the Netflix
“[Centivax] vaccine could eradicate influenza as we know it,” says Ives in the docuseries.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak, the spotlight fell on antibodies. Firstly, would antibodies produced in response to Covid-19 keep us permanently immune or just confer a temporary reprieve from infection? Secondly, could we use antibodies to detect the virus as a diagnostic? And thirdly, can we use antibodies — our own or synthetically made — to help treat this illness? Distributed Bio has been working on the latter since the beginning. Their SuperHuman 2.0 human antibody discovery platform and Tumbler computational antibody optimization technology discovered thousands of potential antibodies against the novel virus in just nine weeks. Ives and the Distributed Bio team pared this down to hundreds of candidates that block our ACE2 receptor from interacting with the virus.
Jake Glanville, Distributed Bio’s CEO and co-founder, said in a July 2020 interview with CNBC that he’s cautiously optimistic that we’ll have a vaccine by the end of the year.
Mammoth Biosciences: Testing and the power of CRISPR
Janice Chen is Chief Technology Officer of Mammoth Biosciences, which she co-founded with CRISPR gene-editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley and fellow lab members Trevor Martin and Lucas Harrington. As CTO, she oversees the R&D functions for Mammoth’s diagnostic programs and strategic plans for the company’s overall portfolio of CRISPR products. Chen co-invented the programmable CRISPR-based detection technology DETECTR and was on the Forbes 30 under 30 in Healthcare in 2019.
“We are harnessing the diversity of nature to develop next-generation CRISPR products, with a mission to improve lives by reading and writing the code of life,” said Chen. “Using our CRISPR-based DETECTR platform, Mammoth is developing Covid-19 diagnostic solutions across the continuum of testing.”
In May, Mammoth announced a partnership with GSK to develop a handheld device that will put the accuracy of a molecular lab for SARS-CoV-2 detection in the hands of consumers. Most recently, Mammoth was awarded a Phase II contract from the NIH RADx program to manufacture and scale-up our DETECTR assay for high-throughput COVID testing in laboratories.
Scaling and collaborating in the face of a pandemic
The development of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 has been unprecedented. In January – just eight months ago – we barely had the full genome sequence of the virus. Today, there are 37 vaccine candidates in clinical evaluation, with nine in Phase III, according to a report by the WHO. Major partnerships have evolved in the struggle to develop a successful vaccine, while international organizations like CEPI aim to promote collaboration across the field at all stages of development.
But the challenges faced by vaccine candidates are great. Clinical trials need to be recruited for, vaccines must be determined as both safe and effective, and, crucially, a successful candidate must be produced at scale and delivered. It is a logistical and scientific challenge. New RNA-based vaccines candidates, developed with synthetic biology approaches, pose a unique solution to both issues.
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Peter Bickerton for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about (including Ginkgo Bioworks) are sponsors of the SynBioBeta 2020 Global Synthetic Biology Summit and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.