The GP-Write Project, an outgrowth of the Human Genome Project involving hundreds of scientists, aims to make our ability to synthesize (write) human and other large-scale genomes as fast, powerful and cheap as our ability to sequence (read) them. Achieving this will supercharge progress in human health and magnify synbio’s impact across industries.
Synbio vaccines for COVID-19
When the pandemic struck, several synbio companies pivoted from developing vaccines for other viruses to focus on COVID-19. Their bioengineering tools and approach have already enabled several of them to bring forward COVID-19 vaccine candidates faster and with greater potential functionality than classical approaches, which involve creating a weakened or neutralized form of the virus.
One synbio company has already created the first COVID-19 vaccine candidate to reach human trials, setting a speed record for achieving this milestone. Using only the virus’ genetic data, they formulated a vaccine-based messenger RNA (mRNA) for patient testing in 25 days. Another synbio company brought the second vaccine candidate to clinical trials, this one using a small snippet of DNA rather than mRNA. Vaccines like these code cells to produce the viral proteins that trigger an immune response.
And yet another group is pursuing a vaccine where the immune response is sparked by self-assembling protein nanoparticles. The resulting vaccine could provide immunity to multiple strains of the virus at once and wouldn’t require refrigeration during distribution, an important benefit in resource-poor countries.2
Because these synbio vaccines don’t involve cultivating the virus in any form, their manufacture requires much less space, doses occupy less volume and scaling up production can go faster. As with any vaccine, however, they will have to be proven effective in human trials, something never assured.
COVID-19 antibody therapeutics
While vaccines are key to definitively ending the COVID-19 pandemic, antibody therapies are essential to blunt its human toll in the interim. The principle is simple: give infected patients the antibodies that can fight off the viral infection to help them recover; give the antibodies to healthy people to improve their resistance temporarily. The classical ways to produce antibodies are to extract them from the blood of convalescent patients or to produce them in genetically modified animals, such as mice. Both methods face the challenge of time and scaling to meet the massive need.
Several synbio companies have jumped in with potential antibody solutions. One company, for example, started with five antibodies to the SARS-CoV-1, the virus which caused the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the one most closely related to COVID-19. The company sequenced and virtually reshuffled the DNA of the SARS antibodies, creating billions of variants which it then scanned to find the ones that would bind with COVID-19. Finally, it created multiple new human antibodies and entered them into safety and efficacy trials.
Beyond the immediate crisis
Beyond vaccines and antibodies, synbio will have an important role in the longer-term fight against COVID-19 and the other possible pandemic pathogens.
A mutation in COVID-19 could render a vaccine ineffective and cause a new outbreak. To support the development of a long-lasting vaccine, researchers published a map of the virus’ epitopes, the parts of the virus to which antibodies attach themselves. By signposting the epitopes that rarely mutate, this data will help synbio teams design vaccines and antibodies that confer long-lasting immunity.