Okay, so imagine this: It's about twenty years from now and a serious pandemic hits. You're rightly terrified of leaving your house for fear of contracting the virus — but you know full well that you can't stay home forever. That's when you hit the internet and boot up your 3-D bio-printer. After downloading the recently coded vaccine from the Center for Disease Control website, you print it out and give yourself an injection. Crisis averted.
This remarkable idea was recently presented by geneticist Craig Venter at the inaugural Wired Health Conference in New York City. He calls it a digital biological converter, or "teleporter." Talking to the audience, he described it as "a 3-D printer for DNA, a 3-D printer for life."
As always, Venter is serious when he talks about this stuff. His team is already working through various scenarios in which they have less than 24 hours to make a new vaccine with this tool.
Venter claims to have come up with the idea when talking to the mayor of Mexico City during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. At the time, authorities flatly refused to allow samples of the virus to be transported out of the city for fear of further infection. But the restriction prevented scientists from studying it and developing a countermeasure. Venter imagines the day when a virus like H1N1 can be quickly digitized and emailed to research labs for immediate analysis — something that would dramatically decrease the time it would take to build a vaccine.
Assuming that all the regulation hurdles can be overcome, Venter concedes that the 3-D printer will have to be remarkable accurate. Any small deviation from the correct script could result in a printed protein that won't work as intended.
Hopefully, we'll have time to figure this out before the next pandemic hits.
Photo: Photo: Christopher Farber/Wired.