Building a National Immune System

Q&A with Biosecurity Expert Renee Wegrzyn

November 17, 2020

You could argue that the most complex technology in the world can be found within every living cell. The technology? What most people simply call “biology.” 

Synthetic biology is a field that aims to make biology easier to engineer. Through synthetic biology, people are developing new technology with the potential to transform industries, from healthcare to agriculture to food. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to use synthetic biology to develop cutting-edge solutions for the world’s biggest health challenges. 

The potential of synthetic biology is immense; but like with any technology, there are risks of misuse. It’s crucial to develop safety measures in tandem with advances so the industry can continue to grow responsibly. As new tools push the boundaries of what’s possible, biosecurity aims to predict and avoid potential risks so we can take advantage of the technology’s benefits. 

Ginkgo’s Vice President of Business Development, Renee Wegrzyn, is a leading biosecurity expert. She completed her undergraduate work in biology and genetics and earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and bioengineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She left academia and spent three years leading diagnostics development in the biotech industry, then transitioned to an advisory role to various US government agencies including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) as well as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Most recently, Renee spent five years as a program manager at DARPA where she launched synthetic biology programs to accelerate its adoption in manufacturing, to help outpace infectious diseases, and to create new tools to enable biosecurity. 

We sat down with Renee to get her insight into the United States’ pandemic response and the future of biosecurity.

Q: A lot of the discussion today is focused—understandably—on the immediate challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s also an opportunity to look to the future, learn from our mistakes, and get ahead of the next pandemic threat. How can the U.S. develop a stronger pandemic response?

A: There is a lot to celebrate about our response so far, particularly how the private sector has stepped up to help with testing, tracking, and vaccine efforts. I’m excited about the opportunity to use synthetic biology to develop a “national immune system” that works just like the body’s to detect and fight infection. In the same way our immune system detects, intercepts, and supressess an infection, synthetic biology can be used to create tools to detect (via pathogen testing and analysis), intercept (via vaccines and therapeutics), and suppress (via large scale manufacturing) an outbreak before it becomes a national or global crisis.

Right now we’re lacking the infrastructure, coordination, and regulation necessary for this national  immune system to be fully realized. But the growing number of biosurveillance tools can help us develop a stronger response. Simple to use, inexpensive antigen tests, for example, can allow us to provide tests to nearly every individual in a town or zip code, enabling public health authorities to track outbreaks on a massive scale. Other synthetic biology tools can help to develop new therapeutics and vaccines more quickly and in a more scalable manner. 

We need to start preparing now for the next biological threat, which means predicting our vulnerabilities, developing biosurveillance capabilities and running ecosystem-wide exercises to flex our muscles. It’s not about going back to normal. In order to get ahead of the next pandemic, we need to advance beyond status quo and create a healthy and responsive bioindustry to be ready to respond to the next pandemic. 

Q: Terms like biosurveillance may sound futuristic, but really they express something very simple. We can’t respond to an outbreak if we don’t know that it’s happening. Obviously there’s a huge need to build up our public health infrastructure—it’s interesting to think about how synthetic biology could help us accomplish that goal. 

The federal government seems like a natural advocate for using these tools to build a national immune system. Agencies like the ones you worked with can be powerful champions of technology. What are some of the lessons you learned while working with DARPA, IARPA and ARPA-E?

A: One thing I learned early on while working with these organizations is that biosecurity needs to be better represented in the private sector. Most companies just aren’t thinking about biosecurity and don’t have a plan in place like they do for cybersecurity. COVID-19 has made it clear that companies, schools, and organizations of all sizes need comprehensive plans that involve pandemic response and testing strategies to keep employees safe and businesses functioning. 

Beyond that, biosecurity planning must also involve risk assessment for the potential consequences of synthetic biology. The private sector is only just beginning to grapple with these issues. There are important questions to be asked around the unintended consequences of these powerful technologies, both intended and incidental. We should not shy away from that fact, but instead be mindful of this and solve ahead of time for the challenges that can arise from misuse. A true national immune system would have this designed into its core to be able to manage “out of control biology” wherever it comes from.

Q: What do you wish was better understood about synthetic biology?

A; The way we talk about synthetic biology is important, and how we use our technology matters. There’s an opportunity to better communicate the outcomes and solutions — whether that’s better-performing adhesives for industry or new testing technologies for public health — that is grounded in the human impacts and benefits. This will open up new possibilities for partnerships where we can continue to demonstrate biology’s potential by solving challenges in everything from the current pandemic to retail to manufacturing and bring real solutions that people can get as excited about as we are about the science behind them. 

 

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