Imagine, in the not-too-distant future, an outbreak of a highly contagious flu virus similar to the recent bird or swine flu. A team of scientists develop a vaccine, but need to get it in circulation quickly to prevent a pandemic. Shades of a Hollywood disaster flick perhaps, but a potentially realistic scenario nonetheless. With our current advances, it could take weeks or months for a medication to be manufactured and distributed. But what if a vaccine could emailed around the globe instead?
That’s exactly what geneticist Craig Venter, the founder of Celera Genomics and The Institute for Genomic Research, and his team of researchers propose. Already one of the first people to sequence the human genome, Venter is now working towards ‘teleporting’ vaccines via email where they can be assembled by a ‘biological printer,’ similar to the way 3D printer handles design files.
Venter and his team have developed a method to digitize biological molecules into computer-readable instructions that can be sent around the world as easily as a PDF. Receiving ’biological printers’ would then use these instructions to build the actual molecule piece by piece. Venter spoke about the system at the recent WIRED Health Conference, saying:
“We found a way we can move proteins, viruses and single human cells at the speed of light. We can digitize biology, send it at the speed of light and reconfigure the biology at the other end.”
An early version of this so-called ’3-D printer for life’ is already being tested, and has the potential to revolutionize global healthcare.
In the first place, it represents a massive shift from the highly centralized and controlled vaccine manufacturing we have today to a faster, more agile and local system. A vaccine ‘blueprint’ spread via email to bio-printers worldwide would reduce costs (because there’s no transportation) and increase both the range of people covered and number who are able to be vaccinated. Doctors, aid workers, and health professionals could call up vaccines on-demand as the need arises, and an emerging epidemic could be stopped cold with nearly instant, up-to-date distribution (important for rapidly-mutating diseases). This effectively eliminates the ‘bottleneck’ problem of actually getting vaccines to people quickly enough and in sufficient volume to stem contagion.
However, ‘printing’ a biological molecule is substantially more problematic than what a 3D printer does. Arranging molecules for health purposes is very delicate work, and in case of a ‘misprint’ a protein could perform otherwise than intended. This and other quality control issues will lead to regulations and safety concerns, which makes in-home commercial bio-printers unlikely. Just as easily as the system could spread a cure, it could spread bioweapons or narcotics disguised as medicine. Mass implementation would surely require a revolution in spam email filtering and data authentication, or at least its own secured network. And finally, the concept flies in the face of pharmaceutical companies’ intellectual property concerns, where they currently spend millions (if not billions) developing medicines that once turned generic, deprive them of a return on their investment.
But back to our imaginary scenario, think about how many lives could be saved if the first safe vaccine developed didn’t have to be sent to a manufacturing plant, created in large amounts, distributed to doctors and pharmacies, then put into circulation. All that takes weeks; with Dr. Venter’s direct line between vaccine developers and recipients, incalculable amounts of money and time could be saved. With appropriate quality control and safety precautions, this could be a world-changing technology.
Watch this video from the WIRED Health Conference in which Craig Venter talks about this project:
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