Synbio To The Rescue

Microscopic virus close up with 3D rendering

The numbers continue to grow and, as Dr. Fauci says, it is going to get worse before it gets better. If we all do a good job in social distancing, the curve will bend sooner rather than later. The government is pulling out all stops for therapeutic solutions, as Dr. Kuhn described on Thursday. As I wrote last week, there is a silver lining to the dark cloud hovering over all of us. One of the numerous positive things going on is the development of a vaccine for Covid-19.

Significant progress is being made by Moderna Therapeutics, CureVac, and Inovio Pharmaceuticals, who are going as fast as possible to begin human testing. Nevertheless, the approach they are taking uses biological DNA and RNA as the core ingredient. As advanced as the current development process is, vaccines as we know them have a number of shortcomings. The most visible shortcoming is they take years to develop and manufacture. Potentially more significant is they become obsolete if and when the virus evolves, which it will. There are already multiple strains, and there will be more. Finally, the immune response the vaccines produce may not be strong enough to be effective.

A totally new approach is under development using synbio. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put $60 million into coronavirus research including for the synbio effort. If you read Daniel Suarez science fiction novels (among my favorite authors) you have already heard of synbio. It takes a major role in his book, Change Agent, which takes place in 2045, and is about Interpol’s Genetic Crime Division which grapples with a new type of crime: illicit genetic editing. It is quite a thriller.

Synbio stands for synthetic biology. Synbio is mostly about the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing, natural biological systems. More specific to the issue of the day, synbio may replace the DNA and RNA ingredients mother nature has provided for the development of vaccines with synthetic ingredients.

A vaccine made from synthetic ingredients can potentially offer some significant advantages. The big one is scalability. Synbio vaccines could be produced efficiently for millions or even billions of doses. Another advantage is synthetic ingredients do not need to be refrigerated. This would be a huge benefit for places like sub-Saharan Africa.

Synbio vaccines are developed using computer models, not flasks and test tubes. With billions of calculations, a nanoparticle can be designed which has the exact properties desired. The really big breakthrough with synbio is the attachment of viral molecules to the nanoparticle. Neil King at the University of Washington and his synbio colleagues knew there would be another coronavirus epidemic, like the SARS and MERS outbreaks before the current Covid-19 outbreak. King said, “…there will be another one after this,” perhaps from yet another member of this virus family. We need a universal coronavirus vaccine.” One vaccine for all corona viruses. That will be the breakthrough.

Sharon Begley wrote a beautiful article in STAT which explains the synbio efforts underway in much more detail. See To develop a coronavirus vaccine, synthetic biologists try to outdo nature. STAT has great articles about life sciences and the fast-moving business of making medicines.