The Future of Synthetic Biology – An Interview with Andrew Hessel

What if you could cure cancer with a synthetic virus or pre-load your children with genetic information? The future of synthetic biology is here.

In this interview, Andrew Hessel, founder of Humane Genomics, explains how tailor-made viruses may one day cure cancer, how IVF will be replaced by a less expensive and more effective method, why it is likely that whole genome sequencing will become more popular, and the privacy protections that may be needed in the future.

Interested in learning more? You may also like to see the keynote presentation on the future of genomics given at the 29th International Symposium on Human Identification and watch as Kevin Davies discusses the $1,000 Genome.





Laura: Hi, we’re here at ISHI 29 with Andrew Hessel. Andrew, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.


Andrew: I’m pretty hard to describe. I’m a trouble maker. I live a few years in the future. I basically, I’m a called a futurist by some people. I prefer the word catalyst. I like to go and play on the forward edge of things and spark things into action sometimes. I often get people together to try new things. By training, I’m a Cell Biologist and Genetic Scientist, but today, it’s largely working to introduce the forward edge of those technologies to a wider audience.


Laura: I saw part of your presentation today, and it was fascinating. How did you get involved in this work? It’s really unique.


Andrew: It’s a long story. I was a geek. I just loved anything mechanical or electrical and when I really had to start thinking about my graduate career, or even before that, as soon as I finished high school, I was thinking, well, what do I go and concentrate on? I’m obsessive compulsive by nature, so it has to be something important. I realized I don’t care about anything material. Cars, buildings… It doesn’t matter if it’s insured, just replace it. It all ends up in the junk yard anyways. And then I realized that working on living systems is really fascinating, and we were starting to get some really good tools and molecular biology and genetics to do it, so I switched into that field, and I’ve been riding the waves of technology and advancement ever since.


Laura: Very interesting. Tell us a little bit about your company.


Andrew: Humane Genomics is a company I founded to.. I was working with AutoDesk for six years, and I got to prototype synthetic viruses with them, and to continue that work, I founded a company to advance it. So, basically, we’re making… the first project was to make cancer fighting viruses, so essentially to give cancer cells a cold. They’re designed fully synthetically. There’s no starting biological material. We start with a design file on a computer, and we synthesize the entire viral genome. Then we do standard cell culture work to boot up that genome, make viral particles, purify them, and then use them as cancer treatments in dogs.


Laura: That’s amazing. Where are you in the process with that?


Andrew: Oh, we’ve already done all the proof of concept. We’ve re-engineered the virus now. So, we’ve made synthetic viruses. We were the first to make a synthetic oncolytic virus, they call it, and now we’re refining the process. Making it faster, making it cheaper, and making it automated.


Laura: That’s amazing. I believe in your talk you said something like we do have a potential in the future to cure almost every disease or genetic flaw that exists. Where do you see that going first? What do you think will be the first thing we do?


Andrew: So, I tell people we basically have to cure cancer first. And here’s why. Cells are the most complex machines on the planet, but let’s take a less complex machine that we know more about. I usually say, take a BMW. Beautiful car, very complicated. You open the hood, it’s basically all electronics. We know everything about a BMW. Absolutely everything. We’ve made every component, every chemical, every wire, but if it’s not working right, the average person isn’t going to be able to fix it, and, in some cases, even highly trained specialists aren’t going to be able to fix it. They’ll just have to start swapping out modules and hope it works.

So, fixing a cell is a thousand times hard. So, trying to do things like gene therapy is very difficult. Now, if you want to destroy something; if you want to kill a BMW, all you need is a six year-old and a hammer. Like, you just have to make sure they get the BMW and not the car beside it.

So, curing cancer is just about using the tools of biotech to selectively kill cells, and it’s actually not that hard a problem. It’s like making a very specific antibiotic. The challenge we’ve had in the past is that no two cancers are the same and we keep trying to hit them with the same one size fits all drugs, and that just doesn’t work. With the technologies that we’re developing now, we can make customized therapies to the individual.


Laura: Wow, that would be incredible to see.


Andrew: Yeah, and it’s not even expensive. The biopsy on the cancer will essentially drive the design of the therapy and we expect that we should be able to achieve turnaround times in days as this technology matures.


Laura: That would be a remarkable advancement. I think anybody would appreciate that.


Andrew: I call it moving from Blockbuster medicines to Netflix medicines. A cheap subscription plan to get all the medicine you want.


Laura: Perfect! You also talked about hacking humans, and I think there’s a little terror people have when you say that, so maybe you can talk a little bit about CRISPR, 24th Genome, things like that.


Andrew: So, I’m one of the co-founders of Genome ProjectWrite. People think that’s about hacking humans, but it’s not. It’s just about building the core technologies and societal structures. Things like ethics. Things like standards that are necessary to do the engineering of large genomes. But even if we write a complete human genome, we can just run it in cell culture. We’re not making human babies. That’s well outside of the scope of this particular project. That being said, people automatically go to the designer baby, and there I just have to point out that we’ve been hacking humans for a long time.

IVF is probably the biggest hack, and now we’ve crossed the 40 year anniversary with IVF. What most people haven’t heard of yet is IVG, which is going to be a game changer, because it’ll make IVF $500 or less and easy. You won’t need ovaries anymore to produce eggs; just a blood sample will probably be sufficient.

And then CRISPR is really the forward edge of doing gene therapies. CRISPR is where we would… Think of it as genetic surgery. So, it’s not something today that we’d be comfortable using to do cosmetic surgery, but if there’s a major error in an embryo, it’s another tool that the doctors have to do a surgical correction.


Laura: Wow. C24, can you talk a little bit about that?


Andrew: I’m a big fan of C24 technologies. What we’ve been learning is that our genomes are very plastic. Now, if we were… C24 technology is the opportunity, if you were doing IVF, to add another chromosome. An engineered chromosome that’s basically pre-loaded with essentially all the fixes and all the additional software you might want for your child. It doesn’t mean it’s turned out. It just means it’s pre-loaded.

Think of it like when we used to buy our PCs and they’d come pre-loaded with all the trial software. Kind of the same idea. Since you only have one opportunity to get every cell in the body loaded with extra code, and it has to be done in the lab with IVF, C24, I think is the type of technologies we’ll develop first with animal systems, but potentially with humanity moving forward.


Laura: That’s very interesting. I believe you also talked a little bit about how you would be able to sequence the genome for every human on the planet in a relatively short time. I’d love to hear more about that. I think people hear sequence the genome and think it’s an impossible, or very time-consuming task.


Andrew: It’s not actually. So, DNA sequencing has been one of the fasted evolving technologies on the planet. The first genome was completed in 2003. The draft was done in 2000, but the genome was completed in 2003. And since then, 15 years, the time and cost of sequencing the whole human genome has just plummeted. Today, you and I could get a whole genome sequencing for under $1,000. I’ve been sequenced twice. It’s only going to get cheaper, but what is interesting now, is that even at $1,000, people aren’t rushing out to get sequenced. There’s still some pretty significant barriers, cost being one of them; doctor’s approval being another. So, what I’m seeing now is the emergence of second generation testing companies that are removing those barriers and making it free for people and learning how to build a growing economy that is essentially exo-thermic and allows it to scale to a billion.

The way I describe it is, do you remember when you used to have to pay to get email? You don’t have that anymore. All of our web services are essentially provided for free, because they generate an economy behind the scenes. Well, we’re not going to go and create the same economy, because the money flowed up to a small number of shareholders and owners, but we’re seeing the appearance of a distributed economy today around genomes that I think will be beneficial to everyone. I think it’ll give you access to better data about yourself. I think it’ll give doctors and researchers a better idea of how to treat you or do basic bio-research. I like to point out, some people are going to become millionaires just because of the genetic lottery; the genome they were born with is just incredibly valuable. I think we’re going to see some really fascinating dynamics over the next 10 or 15 years. Like, this will accelerate quickly. I expect we’ll have 50 million people sequenced between 4 and 10 years.


Laura: That’s very interesting. I’m sure you get asked a lot about privacy, ethical concerns… It’s a huge topical area, but how you go about addressing that?


Andrew: Privacy is interesting, because really we don’t have genetic privacy. Everywhere we go, we shed our genomes, so really, if we’re going to put in some sort of privacy rule, it’s going to have to come from the electronic side and from the regulatory side. It’s not hard to collect a person’s genome and sequence it, so I’ve suggested well maybe you have to be sequenced and copywritten so that if anyone uses your genomic information without your permission, you hit them with a copywrite violation. Something similar that provides genetic protections. When it comes to ethics, ethics aren’t a really good guide, because everyone has a different ethical makeup. So, it’s a spectrum. It’s not black and white. So, I think, in general, our ethical positions shift over time as we become more comfortable with a particular technology or tool or service. I think in this case, I think that it’s really about the individual. I have no problem being sequenced and making my genome available for research, but I imagine if I were a master criminal, I’d be a little hesitant. And again, if I had an interesting genome, and I don’t, I’m just an average person (boringly normal, my doctor says). If I had an interesting genome, then I’d be a lot more concerned about getting the appropriate compensation for my genome. It might be the one thing that gives me a chance at being a millionaire.


Laura: What makes an interesting genome?


Andrew: For example, you have lots and lots of hair on your head and you’re 60 years old. Or you’re super tall. The way I describe it is you’re a mutant – you’re a freak in some way, and I say that in the nicest way. You’re just two standard deviations from the mean.


Laura: Very interesting. You’ve talked about cloning as well. Any thoughts on that?


Andrew: Love it. I’ve always been a big fan of cloning, but then I read that it can consume science fiction and clones are an old trope in science fiction. I don’t see any issues with clones. We have natural clones all over the world – identical twins. They only difference with a clone is that they’re time displaced. I look at clones as being pretty much organic. They’re not genetically modified. They might have a watermark signature put in just to distinguish them, but really it’s not genetic engineering, it’s just an extension of cell biology and IVF.


Laura: What’s next for you?


Andrew: That’s a great question. So, the last big project that just graduated was joining the new genome based economy, Nebula. So, joining them as an adviser. Right now, I’ve got a DNA sequencer technology that I’m out raising money for, just to be able to go out and take that beyond prototype. Of course, always trying to improve virus engineering, and we’re trying to establish a virus factory here in the US, because there’s no stand-alone, dedicated, vertically integrated virus factory, and I think it’s time we established that as a public service. And, a couple of other projects that I’m not ready to pull the covers off of.


Laura: Oh, interesting, so we’ll have to talk again.


Andrew: Now that I’m part of this community, I think I’ll just have to keep coming back.


Laura: I think you do, and speaking of that, you’re new and you’re just getting started here, but what do you think so far?


Andrew: Well, this is a community of people who are really professional, because the work that they do and the decisions that they are ultimately responsible for affect lives, and that’s a big deal. I was trained as a medlab technologist before I did my genetics graduate work, so I understand that there’s some results that there’s a life at the end, connected to that result. So you have to be very professional and run all the standards and not take any shortcuts. It’s hard work. Today, I’m fortunate that I’m able to play on the fringe. I don’t invent anything, I just go and take a look at what’s happening at the very forward edge, run it through my filters, and bring it back, but this community has to be a little more conservative than me. But, that being said, they need to be aware of what’s happening on the forward edge, because it’s going to change their work.


Laura: Yes, and I can see it happening. Every year, I think there’s something that surprises us. Thank you, Andrew, that was great. I really appreciate you being here.