NEW YORK CITY — Craig Venter imagines a future where you can download software, print a vaccine, inject it, and presto! Contagion averted.
“It’s a 3-D printer for DNA, a 3-D printer for life,” Venter said here today at the inaugural Wired Health Conference in New York City.
The geneticist and his team of scientists are already testing out a version of his digital biological converter, or “teleporter.”
Why should you care? Well, because the machine has “really good anti-viral software,” he quipped.
His team is working through scenarios where they have less than 24 hours to make a new vaccine with this gadget.
He recalled working with Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. They couldn’t get the virus out of the metropolis because authorities wouldn’t allow it, he said. That delayed efforts to stem the spread of the virus, and thousands of people died.
Had they been able to digitize it, they could have e-mailed it, and “it could have gone around the world digitally,” allowing researchers to study it and to build a vaccine more quickly, Venter said.
Venter is not the first to try to print biological ware. Scientists have tried to print blood vessels, organs and even burgers.
But whether regulators will allow this futuristic approach to public health is another story. “Regulation will be an interesting aspect of this,” Venter conceded. “We get a lot of spam e-mail. People making fake drugs and selling them for profit. It’s a nasty world out there,” he said.
Mistaking an American Express bill for a scam and deleting it might decrease your credit rating, but downloading, printing and injecting a dangerous retrovirus masquerading as a vaccine is potentially life-threatening. Perhaps printable life technologies might spur the development of better spam filters or e-mail validation software as well.
If Venter’s printer becomes widely available, scientists and engineers would also have to ensure that molecules are printed accurately. Small changes could tweak the structure and make a printed protein work in a way they didn’t intend.
Venter is also experimenting with synthetic life, taking DNA from one type of cell, injecting it into another, and letting that “genetic software” reprogram its host. What that means in the context of DNA desktop manufacturing isn’t clear either, especially when it comes to questions of privacy.
Venter isn’t concerned. “Privacy with medical information is a fallacy,” Venter said. “If everyone’s information is out there, it’s part of the collective.”
He joked that he’s been beaming his genome into space for years, and perhaps the real fear is that an army of genetically engineered Craig Venters would come back to take over the planet.
But the reality is that the debate over whether a consumer has the right to know and own their genetic data is a very real one. Many in the scientific establishment, including the government, want to keep genetic data in the hands of experts, said Dr. Eric Topol in a following session at the conference.
“Many doctors … don’t like the idea of Aunt Betty mucking around with her macular degeneration alleles,” said geneticist Misha Angrist of the Institute for Genome Science and Policy at Duke University in an interview with Wired before the conference. “Of course, if we continue to extol the virtues of willful ignorance, then we will never stop thinking of our own genomes as the bogeyman.”