explorer_hessel_interview_07.03.2017_DB

Simon Erickson
about 2 years agoMarch 2, 2018
Complete Transcript:

SIMON ERICKSON:

Hi, everyone, Simon Erickson, lead advisor of Explorer, here and I'm joined by Andrew Hessel, a distinguished researcher at Autodesk. Also one of the most progressive minds in the biotechnology industry. I'm looking forward to hearing his take on what's going on in the field. Andrew, thanks for being a part of the program here today.

ANDREW HESSEL:

Hi. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON ERICKSON:

We've seen a lot of focus, lately, on the genome. It seems like people, now, are starting to understand what genomic sequencing means. We've got new terms coming out like gene therapy and gene editing, and so I wanted to start more broadly first. When you're looking at what's going on with the science in the industry, today, what are a couple of things that you're really excited about?

ANDREW HESSEL:

One of the things, in general, that I'm really excited about is we're seeing the foundation of genomics really being built on the computing architectures that have just exploded and connected us all. Now more and more people are starting to realize that genomics is here to stay and that it has real value.

Probably at the forefront of my mind, every day now, is just the accessibility and decrease in cost of DNA sequencing. This is a foundational technology. It allows us to read the genome of virtually every organism — to essentially look at the operating system of every organism, every cell — and we're finding more and more utility for these technologies as they get cheaper. So being able to do diagnostics of medical diseases. Being able to take a look at a person's risk factors. Being able to understand just the organisms in a particular environment. That's a real breakthrough.

On the other end, there's kind of reading, writing, and comprehension when it comes to genomics. We have much better analysis tools. They're faster. Built on high-performance cloud computing. And on the writing end, this is the field of synthetic biology that is now allowing us to design DNA code pretty much from the bottom up, build it quickly, test it quickly, and it's opening up a whole new digital area of genetic engineering.

SIMON ERICKSON:

And I'd like to talk a little bit more about synthetic biology, because the last time you and I spoke, you had compared the field of biology to the IT industry, where instead of coding with zeros and ones, you're actually coding with the As, Cs, the Ts and the Gs of the DNA to build proteins and then build life. Can you talk a little bit more about what the field of synthetic biology is and then also what the applications are you think could come out of that?

ANDREW HESSEL:

Yeah, the field of synthetic biology is genetic engineering, but it's supported less with the laboratory and more and more with digital tools. So as a synthetic biologist, we actually start to design what features we want to build into a cell or an organism and then code it like we were coding software. And you've hit it exactly right. Instead of using ones and zeros of computer software, we write in the biological machine language of DNA, which is represented by the letters A, T, C, and G.

Now no one sits down and writes a lot of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs. We actually use special editing software and design software. And once we've actually written our program, so to speak, now the core piece of technology that allows us to essentially compile the code and run it in a biological system is a machine called a DNA synthesizer that literally starts to assemble the physical molecule of DNA base-by-base, component-by-component to build genetic code.

Once you've got the genetic code completed, you can put it in the organism and change what the organism does. You can make it make a medicine. You can make it detect different molecules. You can have it make a drug. You can have it make a fuel. So it's a really new way of programming the world around us. I like to say we're learning how to program carbon and we're moving beyond silicon.

SIMON ERICKSON:

And of those that you named, are there any applications you see as particularly promising for this, or something that's extremely valuable? You said I think fuels, foods, vaccines. Anything that you can 3D print that's very interesting, do you think?

ANDREW HESSEL:

This is a technology that's being built bottom-up, because our ability to write and assemble DNA code is still evolving. So we've moved beyond writing single proteins, which is largely what the first-generation biotech companies were based on. Now we're able to assemble kind of metabolic circuits that might have components and genes from many different organisms. But it's like building a circuit. We still can't essentially make the entire organism's genome, yet, easily and efficiently.

So the types of applications that we're seeing companies and researchers work on today in broad classes are medicines, because medicines are valuable and important. We're seeing materials. This can be things like leathers, things like spider silk, and just various polymers that might be used for being able to build things like plastics and nylons.

Foods are becoming really interesting because now we can reprogram, for example, yeast cells to make various proteins (for example, milk proteins or egg proteins) so we can now make them at scale without having to make the whole animal.

Those are the various classes right now. Medicines, materials, and foodstuffs are the biologics that touch our life and so they're kind of the ones that the engineers are working on immediately for applications.

SIMON ERICKSON:

And I'd like to ask a little bit more about the computing part of that. Another saying that I love that you've said is, "DNA is the programming language, but it's the cells that are really the processors, at least from the biology perspective." And you're starting to see tech companies get interested in life sciences. We've seen IBM and we've seen Google entering this space. What role do you think that the tech companies are going to play in really progressing this field?

ANDREW HESSEL:

I think the tech companies are integral to it. The tech companies understand computing architectures, and really the computing architectures that we've created and have become familiar with … there are biological examples that are very similar. So I actually think of biology as a computing and manufacturing platform.

When you think about it, your brain is a piece of meat, but it's a computer. And every living cell — the basic building block of all biology — is a type of computer. It's sensing the world around it, whether it's chemically, or with light signals, or even electrical signals; so it's actually processing information. But the cell is also an amazing manufacturing system. Think of it as a microscopic 3D printer that is fully programmable and can make virtually any biological material.

So the tech companies and the computing platforms that we're familiar with are the foundation we stand on to be able to understand how to program biology and to leverage biomanufacturing.

SIMON ERICKSON:

And I wanted to drill down on that more specifically — one of the projects you're working on right now. We saw back in the '90s the Human Genome Project. It was the first successful sequence of a whole genome for a human being. It took 15 years and $3 billion, but you guys have brought in the next era of that with what you're calling the Genome Project-Write (GP-write), which is not just reading a genome but actually synthetically creating one from scratch.

Can you give us an overview of this project and then also the goals that you hope to achieve with it?

ANDREW HESSEL:

Absolutely. I want to be clear that the first genome project was amazing, because that was where we really learned how to read large genomes and build the technology for reading and analyzing genomes at scale. It was, as you said, a 15-year international effort worth billions of dollars. But that really laid the foundation for the DNA sequencing that we have today, which is now very inexpensive, very fast because the technology has kept moving on.

We realized a few years ago that the writing of DNA, which is this field of synthetic biology, was moving very quickly, kind of bottom-up again, but it was really fragmented. And if you just look at the pace of the technological change in writing DNA — just a little bit of forward projection — we could see that in about 10 years for a price point in the millions of dollars (tens of millions to perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars) we would have the ability to write large genomes like the human genome.

And yet there was no real organization in the scientific community to look at the ethical implications. What the tools are that we're going to need. How do these engineering technologies need to advance in a coordinated way? And we realized it was pretty much time to create a new genome project for a completely new generation of biological engineers, essentially.

We started to organize in 2015. Had a meeting in 2016 that pulled together the scientific community and laid the foundations for a new genome project with the ultimate goal of being able to synthesize a complete human genome and boot it up and operate it in cell culture. I'm afraid we're not doing anything as interesting as making synthetic human beings. That's still science fiction.

But it's time to start engaging the scientific community and making the public more aware. Really bringing the engineering communities into the field, as well as the folks looking at legal issues, and ethical issues, and moral issues. And really start engaging them because this technology is coming whether we like it or not. And it's not going to be here tomorrow. We still have about a decade before the technologies are there, but now is definitely the time to start having these discussions.

SIMON ERICKSON:

That's fascinating. You mentioned those ethical, social, and legal issues that are there, as well, though. Is this a project that's being embraced, or resisted, or a little bit of both out there?

ANDREW HESSEL:

I think it's like any project that is early. You find that there's a lot of interest in it and people don't really understand what it's about, yet, because it's not here yet. So it's an opportunity for discussion. Engagement. I see it as being very similar to the first genome project because it's hard to remember back in the 1980s when they first proposed the genome project we hadn't even sequenced a bacterium yet. Only a few viral genomes had been sequenced, so people were going, "Well, how is this going to help us? What's the value of this? What are the ethical issues around reading DNA?"

So I think this is the same type of issues, but now, again, with a new type of genetic engineering that is here. It's been around for a while. It's going to stay and only become more powerful. It's time we started getting a little more comfortable with what this technology is about and start opening up the knowledge to more people and the discussion with more groups, because most people haven't even heard of synthetic biology at this point.

SIMON ERICKSON:

And speaking of those groups, I'm sure that there are a lot of stakeholders right now that for various reasons have an interest in synthetic biology and genomics. You've got academics and scientists that want to progress the field of that science. You've got private endowments like the Chan Zuckerberg one that wants to eradicate diseases in 10 years. And then you've got publicly funded, taxpayer-funded initiatives like Obama's Cancer Moonshot that really want to have a whole bunch of data they can correlate. And then on top of that you've got the enterprises, the publicly traded companies that want to capture profits for their shareholders.

So perhaps I can frame all of that into a question. What do you think the role of intellectual property is in the future of genomics now that we've got these giant public databases? Typically we've rewarded R&D efforts with patents and exclusivity. Do you think that continues in the future or how does IP look as this progresses?

ANDREW HESSEL:

IP is as complicated as ethics, and I think that different IP structures work for different things. If you're making a single medicine that is going to go out into the world as one medicine, I think patents and strong protections are appropriate. I think when it comes to something like a diagnostic; again, if you're making a single diagnostic, I think that's appropriate, as well, because there's multiple ways of doing diagnoses. So for some areas of biotechnology, patents and strong protections are going to be used and will continue to be used.

I think where it gets a little more interesting is on the engineering front, where with synthetic biology it looks a lot more like software engineering and we may not want to have one fixed design for everyone. I know in my own work I'm looking at how I make personalized medicines for people with cancer, because no two cancers are exactly identical. So there it looks more like generative design where the computers are literally designing and making a medicine for one person. There I don't need a strong patent on the output. I need to think about the intellectual property for more content management or process management, which is really new and unfamiliar to the biotech space.

So I think there's going to be a lot of discussion and lot of engagement around which intellectual property formats — whether it's licenses, or copyright, or patents — is appropriate for a particular innovation; but there's going to be no shortage of new innovations coming down the pipe with these technologies.

And we've seen a lot of it in the gene-editing space in the last few years [with things like] CRISPR. This is a technology that is very powerful, but it's still very physical. You're actually manipulating the genetic code of an organism to make changes. So anything that largely exists in the physical world I think you need stronger protections than something that is largely existing in the virtual world and then just being translated to physical when you need it, which is a lot more like 3D printing.

SIMON ERICKSON:

So is it fair to paraphrase parts of that and say that a lot of the software, a lot of the tools might become more open source in the next couple of years?

ANDREW HESSEL:

I think that when it comes to the software tools, open source right now makes a lot of sense, because there is no single company that can really put all of these powerful tools, algorithms, designs, databases in one space. It's really a community of researchers, of engineers, of tool developers, so we're seeing an ecosystem evolve. So open source has been really good at just being able to do data exchange and sharing, as well as to evolve the software tools to make it useful to different communities of researchers and engineers.

SIMON ERICKSON:

Andrew, our audience, here, at Motley Fool Explorer is really individual investors that are pretty interested in this space but might be new to synthetic biology. What are a couple of things that you think we should be keeping our eye on as this continues to progress in the next few years?

ANDREW HESSEL:

One of my favorite organizations that tracks the synthetic biology space is SynBioBeta, which is a hub for entrepreneurs in the space. So definitely keep an eye on that organization because they're doing a lot of the legwork.

Right now I think we're about to see an explosion in DNA sequencing and new business models around that because most of the DNA sequencing that has been done to date has been supported by research grants and it's pretty fragmented. But what we're seeing now is an opportunity to have a group that does DNA sequencing, but that can attract millions of members to it very quickly, because the cost of DNA sequencing has dropped so dramatically just in the last few years. I think the new line of DNA sequencers promises human genomes for about $100. I think we'll see some new business models appearing there and new DNA sequencing companies that can attract as many members as a Google or Facebook eventually. That's really exciting.

On the genetic engineering front, CRISPR is the gene-editing technology of the moment; that is, we're learning how to do cut and paste, essentially, on whole genomes. This is a really versatile technology because it's not limited to any particular organism and we're seeing applications today in everything from cancer, to gene therapies, to gene drives. Being able to rapidly reshape the population of organisms. This is really exciting technology, and it's here now, and we're seeing a number of companies in that space explore the applications of CRISPR technology.

And then I think what's emerging now in the synthetic biology space is materials engineering and what they call cellular agriculture, which is kind of the next-generation food engineering. Very exciting areas in terms of development because the core technology of synthetic biology is becoming faster, cheaper, and more powerful, and people are really interested in the application space.

And there's a crossover, here, too. As we start to be able to write DNA faster, we're also learning that it makes a great digital archive technology. In other words, as you know we generate a lot of computer information that's digital. It's becoming harder and harder to store that information long term. DNA is a molecule that can exist. It's very cheap to write, it's very information dense, you can pack a lot of information in a small space, and it's really robust in terms of data storage. It lasts much longer than magnetic tape.

So we're seeing companies like Microsoft starting to look at this as maybe a great way to actually back up and archive digital data, and that's an underlying driver in just making DNA synthesis technologies better and cheaper, too.

SIMON ERICKSON:

Andrew, before we let you go, we've got to play a game of Buy, Sell, or Hold with you. This is where I'll pitch you with a theoretical concept. It's not a stock, but it's an idea and you've got to tell me if you're bullish, or you're bearish, or you're not sure. And just for the sake of this round, we'll do all these in terms of the next five years. Are you ready?

ANDREW HESSEL:

Ready.

SIMON ERICKSON:

The first buy, sell, or hold. Another one of my favorite sayings of yours is that "the human being can be considered 6GB of data." Now that we have access to our genetic code and our DNA, buy, sell, or hold companies actually marketing personalized products to us based upon our genome?

ANDREW HESSEL:

Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy. Yes, Absolutely. That is absolutely what we're going to start seeing happen here.

SIMON ERICKSON:

Very interesting. The second one for you. 3D printing has been kind of slow in the adoption for most corporations the way we typically think of 3D printing, but there's certainly potential for this as you've been very involved with in life sciences. Buy, sell, or hold hospitals 3D printing tissues in real time for patients?

ANDREW HESSEL:

That one is a hold. The technology is moving very quickly, but I don't think it will hit the clinical levels in the next five years. I think there will be a lot of advancements in the core tools and technologies, and you'll see some really amazing work starting to come out of this, but you're not going to be able to go in and get new 3D tissues printed at your local hospital facility in the next five years in my opinion.

SIMON ERICKSON:

OK. The tech's ready, but we're still not there, yet. The last one for you, Andrew. We recently saw Elon Musk launch a new company called Neuralink, which is going to merge the human brain with AI, or at least that's what he hopes to do. So buy, sell, or hold the field of synthetic neurobiology, which would be synthetic modifications to our nervous system?

ANDREW HESSEL:

Ah, boy. Again, this is a hold. I think this is one of the most exciting areas of technology, in general. Think of it as interfaces. If you look at your iPhone, it's really an interface to your brain or just your smartphone. This is kind of taking that to the next level and it doesn't have to be your entire brain. It can actually be an interface to a single cell, even a single protein. Being able to connect biology to computing systems is incredibly exciting and it's incredibly valuable, but kind of the last thing to directly connect is our entire brain.

But you are going to see a ton of new applications, and engineering, and things like sensors coming out of the field of building interfaces between biology and electronics. It's how the new DNA sequencing technologies work. It's definitely going to be how sensor technologies work. And looking beyond the five-year window, we're definitely going to see new ways to connect our brain to these devices. You'll start to see it in the areas of helping paraplegics, etc. have mobility and the ability to communicate better through computing systems. But again, it's not going to be something you can go and pick up at your Best Buy in the next five years.

SIMON ERICKSON:

Andrew, as always it's a real pleasure chatting with you. Really, thank you for the time in joining us here today.

ANDREW HESSEL:

Thank you. It's always a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON ERICKSON:

And thanks for tuning into this edition of Motley Fool Explorer. You can learn more about Andrew Hessel at his website — www.AndrewHessel.com and until next time, Fool on!
Your comment