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Venter, Synthetic Biology, and Flu Vaccines

In a Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues meeting session dedicated to the potential applications of synthetic biology post-Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, Craig Venter, George Church, and Kristala Prather spoke about innovation and collaboration. Amy Gutmann, chair of the Commission, was particularly interested in the emerging potential public health benefits of synthetic genomics. Our sister publication, GenomeWeb Daily News also covers this meeting here.

Gutmann asked Venter whether, by next flu season, we could "have a one-day production, through synthetic biology, of a flu vaccine?" To which he answered that researchers could produce the seed stock for the vaccine in just 12 hours. Venter added that with "rapid DNA sequencing, we can predict, we think, well in advance what the changes will be for next year's flu before the WHO even makes the decision as to the vaccine stocks." Production, he said, is a whole different story entirely.

Prather agreed. "If you're still making [a vaccine] in chicken eggs, it's not going to happen in a day. It's just not gonna happen," she said. "So, there's a difference between the tools of synthetic biology being able to give you what that starting material is, if we're stuck with chicken eggs it's not going to happen, if you go to chicken cell culture, it's gonna be faster, if the DNA vaccine technology proves out and you can do it in microbes, you can absolutely do it in a day." This, she was quick to point out, is an immunological issue, not a synthetic biology problem.

Venter said that it's "very likely ... that the vaccine you get next year will be from synthetic genomic technologies." He added that NIH is funding his team to construct synthetic segments, so that it'll be "easy just to put them together in a very rapid synthesis process to make any seed stock for any change we see for tracking new, emerging infections."

When a member of the Commission's panel asked whether there are attractive alternatives to the use of syntehic biology for vaccine production, Venter acknowledged that there are, though "nowhere near as fast." When Gutmann asked about cost-effectiveness, Venter replied "I mean the cost is a trivial part of it at that stage."

"OK," Gutmann said. "Good to know."

Blogger Summer Johnson at recaps the talks she's heard so far.