When researching and developing vaccines and treatments for disease outbreaks, one of the most difficult aspects is often lacking active samples of the virus for testing. If an outbreak of a new strain of Ebola occurs somewhere in the world, it can be very difficult to safely get a sample of the virus back to a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) lab.
And that’s without considering the headache of getting such a thing through customs for both the originating country and the destination country. It’s basically impossible. The best that can be done in most cases is to test samples on the scene with the technology available there and then send that data back to more high-tech locations. Then the home lab can struggle through testing vaccine options and then send that data back to the on-site location for them to actually make it. Not the most ideal scenario, but it’s often the best we have.
A Direct Transition
Researchers at Synthetic Genomics in California have decided to take up that unspoken challenge. In a recent paper published in Nature Biotechnology, they discuss a “digital-to-biological” conversion device they have created that can receive genetic data from, say, a virus being looked at halfway around the world and it can use synthetic DNA bases to recreate the virus in a contained and isolated space in the machine.
The converter would allow for the actual direct formation of a virus sample within a BSL-4 lab without needing to actually take it anywhere and have it already be in a high safety level area. It would reduce the risk of additional infection from transportation attempts dramatically, if those attempts would even be made, and lets the scientists immediately get to work on manufacturing vaccines against the virus. The data for those vaccines can then be sent back to the site and have another conversion machine make it there.
Such a device has the capability to drastically reduce production times for such treatments and, in turn, diminish the spread of disease outbreaks. As a step forward in technology, this conversion device may dramatically change the future collection of biological material. Not just in virology, but across all of science.
All The Other Fields
Biological collection for obtaining biomolecules from newly found plants and animals no longer needs the physical product. Just a genetic or chemical scan would suffice to allow the conversion device to build the molecule itself. While the scaling potential for such a device is unknown at this time, we can assume for now that it won’t replace mass manufacturing methods.
A conversion device like this is for much smaller scale endeavors that only require a few created samples. Of course, those samples can then be moved over to the aforementioned mass production machines, that’s not out of the question. But the greatest asset is truly in being able to transfer data from remote corners of the world and actively recreate the biological structure of viruses, RNA sequences, proteins, and other biomolecules in a lab immediately after, saving time and energy for everyone involved.
The researchers have also suggested the use of the device in future space missions when looking for evidence of life through biomolecule signatures. The data received from measurements could be combined with the device to recreate the molecules in question and confirm or disprove the possibility of current or prior life at the location. Though that’s just a hypothetical usage for now.
Changing The Future
If this converter technology does become more widespread in the future, it may completely change how medicine on the front lines is conducted. Research out in the field could be sent directly back to the lab at home and allow for access to the biological structures long before they could be physically sent back from abroad.
How significant this will turn out to be is hard to tell at this point in time, but it’s something to keep an eye on. We can certainly say that the future is actively changing in what it will become and we are right in the middle of it happening.
Photo CCs: Ebola Virus Particles (5) from Wikimedia Commons