Last May, a YouTube video with a fascinating lede caught my eye: a biology student claimed to have cured himself of lactose intolerance through DIY gene therapy. He’d literally grown a cure, popped it in some capsules, and swallowed. Just a few months later, Stanford scientists posted the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine sequence on Github. And in the same time frame, Feles demoed their direct to consumer, all-in-one desktop science lab. Together, these puzzle pieces are building a picture of a more personalized and decentralized future of health. And COVID-19 has only accelerated the trend towards knowledge-sharing and accessible tools for biotherapeutics.
The DIY biology movement was already well underway before COVID-19. Curious students like Justin Atkin of the Thought Emporium wanted to take their health into their own hands. As a fellow lactose intolerant, I know such persistent health issues take a toll. I simply accepted my fate. But not Justin. He combined what he knew about cells and viruses to design a lactose intolerance cure — by growing a virus programmed to make the lactase enzyme. What makes Justin’s work powerful isn’t simply his success. It’s his commitment to making his insights accessible. He published a cheap, safe, and effective theoretical alternative on Creative Commons.
While bioscience knowledge is becoming more accessible through the open source movement, so are bioscience tools. While most scientific labs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit, a growing number of science-minded entrepreneurs are bringing equipment costs down. Feles developed a full science lab the size of a printer, priced at just $3,000. The accompanying software allows you to run reproducible experiments at the molecular level.
With the growth of the open source bioinformatics movement and the falling cost of scientific tools, Stanford’s publication of a reverse engineered Moderna vaccine sequence raised some natural questions: How many biology savvy people are as frustrated with limited COVID-19 vaccine access as I am with my lactose intolerance? How many self-empowered individuals would make their own vaccine? How feasible would that be now and in the future?
There is no question that COVID-19 has brought the future closer. Most notably, it has accelerated the trend towards open source scientific collaboration. The urgent needs to develop a COVID-19 vaccine unleashed a wave of scientists sharing their research. The Wall Street Journal reported a spike in publishing preliminary findings (prior to peer review) as researchers work to limit the number of dead ends their peers pursue.
Yet while the accessibility of knowledge has gone up vis-a-vis COVID-19 vaccine development, material costs are not trending downward as quickly. While Stanford scientists indicated use of typical biology lab materials for their reverse engineering, the vaccine production process is an entirely different matter. Unstable biological agents, like mRNA require careful handling, which does not lend itself to distributed manufacturing.
We also can expect some regression to the mean with scientific knowledge sharing. Solutions unvetted by clinical trials or peer review will continue to pose risks that the public may not fully appreciate. Yet the field appears to be becoming less risk averse. I expect a sustained shift towards rapid experimentation and sharing early insights.
While “nobody will be making an mRNA vaccine in their garage any time soon,” it may not be so far fetched in our lifetime. Just as 3D printers have become a household item, perhaps one day doctors will email us vaccine scripts that we run on our household bio-printer, eliminating all storage problems. When mutations arise, your doctor could email you a revised script. It may sounds futuristic, but Codex DNA could be as little a year away from going to market, and they aim to have their vaccine printer in every hospital, pharmacy, and doctor’s office. Then personalized medicine may know no limits. I look forward to seeing what Justin Atkin and the open source bioscience community do once this tech becomes direct to consumer.