Participatory Biology

Participatory Biology

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Participatory Biology

Just as the Internet leveled the playing field for entrepreneurship, politics, and social engagement, recent advances are leveling it for biological progress. Processing power, the cloud, and Internet connectivity open doors for inquisitive individuals and nascent biotech startups. How are ordinary people involving themselves in biology, and what will be their impact? In this video, David Kirkpatrick moderates a discussion with Eri Gentry of BioCurious and the Institute for the Future, Ryan Bethencourt of Berkeley BioLabs and the XPRIZE Foundation, and David Haussler of UC Santa Cruz and HHMI.
Kirkpatrick: So, you know, democratization came up last time, and I don’t know, maybe you guys have a different point of view on that word, but let me just quickly introduce our really interesting panel on Participatory Biology, which is also known as bio-hacking, or can be viewed in a lot of different ways—and we’ll try to do a few different ways in this session. Starting here, Eri Gentry, who is a very experienced Techonomist—we’ve had her in our programs before—who is the Technology Horizons Research Manager at The Institute for the Future, but also a key founder of BioCurious, prior to going to Institute for the Future. And I’m going to ask her how she got to that, because she’s not a trained scientist, but she’s really a leading bio-hacker, and somebody who has helped create a lot of that opportunity. Next, Ryan Bethencourt, who is the CEO of Berkeley BioLabs, which is a bio-hacking space and also incubator, who himself is a longtime entrepreneur in biotech. He’s also just been named the Senior Director for Prize Development in Biotech—
Bethencourt: XPRIZE.
Kirkpatrick: XPRIZE, yes. So he’s now going to be overseeing a new set of prizes that the XPRIZE is going to give in biotech, which just happened, right?
Bethencourt: Yes, like two days ago.
Kirkpatrick: Two days ago. So that’s a very cool news item for Ryan. And finally, David Haussler, another really well known scientist at the UC Santa Cruz and the director of the Center for Bio-Molecular Science and Engineering there—who is a trained computer scientist, who has spent his career mostly in biology, applying the tools of IT and analytics and data to biology, which is very much, as I was happy that Drew Endy referred to, something that is motivating us to do this event, to try to bring these worlds more into contact. And he sort of emblemizes exactly why we think we’re here, in part, so thank you for emblemizing that, David. He also works with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
I guess maybe I would start with you, Ryan, to talk, ask you this question. Is democratization a word that you would use freely about what’s happening in bio research and development?
Bethencourt: Yes, so I talked to Craig Venter a little bit, about the word democratization, bio-hackers. He’s not a huge fan of bio-hackers, but he likes the shift from viewing biotech and biotechnology shifting away from just medicine to include everything. So I would say democratization is a word I’ve used before, but I would say it’s more an expansive view of biotech, the fact that it can be everything. And I loved Drew Endy’s talk earlier, where he brought that up. So I think that’s what we’re looking at. So, with Berkeley BioLabs, that was really our vision. We founded it to really take on the fact that we’re trying to accelerate everything in biotech, and so everything can be really diverse, and often consumer-facing.
Kirkpatrick: So you take it as a given that by bringing more people into the process, who are sort of nontraditional actors, so to speak, we will discover more and discover it faster?
Bethencourt: Most definitely.
Kirkpatrick: Has that been demonstrated yet, or is that an article of faith?
Bethencourt: Yes. So, we had a hack night. We hacked a genome, Carsonella ruddii, it’s a symbiotic bacteria, and we had programmers, we had novices, we had some film people, we had wet lab biologists. They all got together, we had about 20 people in the lab, and we spent two days hacking the genome, figuring out where all the parts were. We found that there were some missing tRNA, we found some really interesting processes, and so we started this whole process of looking into it.
We’ve also seen—so, one of the other groups that I’ve been involved in, which is Counter Culture Labs—I’m still a board member there. It’s really focused on citizen science. So Counter Culture Labs takes in people from every possible trade or area of interest in bio, so total novices to experienced people, too.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, now I want to go to David first, and then I want to ask Eri to talk to us about how she got to where she is, because it’s an interesting story and I think it’s indicative of what’s happening sort of in society around biology. But, you represent, David, something slightly different than sort of these bio-hacking wet labs with all this equipment. I mean, you’re really about access to data as a driving force in biological progress, right? So just let me start by asking you, again, is it an article of faith that that’s going to make a difference, or is it already proven that that’s making a difference?
Haussler: Well, yes, I do feel a little more establishment in this crowd, but—
Kirkpatrick: But you’re not dressed accordingly, thankfully.
Haussler: Yes, I think it’s a proven fact that when you open up the information that we are gathering now, in the scale of petabytes, about the molecular nature of ourselves, that everything moves faster. So it’s all about opening up the data. If you want to use the word democratization, fine. I might use “liberation,” but that’s what it is. The data that pertains to ourselves and to the problems that we’re attacking in society, in particular our human health, are often locked up, and I’m especially sensitive to the human health data. These data that are now going to be collected in enormous quantities, due to the advent of genome sequencing and other ways to quantify ourselves now, from continuously running devices, will be inaccessible to the world if we follow the current medical establishment methodology, where everything is siloed into separate medical institutes and not really shared. The thing is you cannot learn anything about yourself if you only have information about yourself. It’s all about comparison to the rest of the world, and if we block that, we lose an enormous opportunity.
Kirkpatrick: And so your work is kind of all about access, right?
Haussler: Yes.
Kirkpatrick: You’re kind of an activist for access.
Haussler: That’s right.
Kirkpatrick: And we talked on the phone about some of the ways—could you just go through the different kinds of access that you’re working toward? Because there are several different types.
Haussler: We posted the first working draft of the human genome on the Internet, on July 7, 2000. That was the first step. It was humanity’s first look at its basic genetic blueprint, and that was a—
Kirkpatrick: You were one of the leaders of the team that did that?
Haussler: Yes. It was our team at Santa Cruz. And that was in contrast to having paid subscription access or highly controlled access. So at that point, we had the whole world looking at one reference genome, one typical genome. If you fast-forward, the next phase was trying to learn a lot about personal genomes. And one of the things that’s really driving personal genomes is cancer research. And I loved Andrew’s presentation earlier on—one of the quotes that he gave that I’ll repeat is, “No two cancers are the same.” That’s absolutely true, at the genetic level. But there are patterns, and we only will see those patterns when we can actually see millions of cancer genomes at the DNA level. If you just see a few, you can’t find the pattern for the background or the noise. You can’t separate signal from noise. In order to do this, we have created, for the National Cancer Institute, the largest database of genomes that are widely available for scientific research, from all of the major projects of the National Cancer Institute. It’s 1.5 petabytes of data, and we now actually distribute to the research community more data every month than the entire National Center for Biotechnology Information combined, at this point. And that’s one of the ways in which we try to enable the community to think together, think collectively about these things. The last thing we’ve done is start the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, GA4GH—you can Google it—seven colleagues and I have started a new international organization to try to break down the barriers, both legal, cultural, procedural, historical, and otherwise—
Kirkpatrick: That’s a lot of “als.”
Haussler: Yes. Old, old crap that keeps people from wanting to share data. And that organization is going to set standards, applications, programming interfaces, that will allow us to share data on a massive scale, and set the tone for a world in which you have a routine economy of information about DNA and other measured health-related quantities, that’s well established to the point where you can build a new business on it. Right now, we’re kind of like, if you try to get in this area right now, you’re a little bit hampered by the fact that—and it’s almost like trying to get an Internet company going before the Internet was really fully established. Once that platform that we all agree on, in terms of global standards for exchange and representation of this information, is hardened, then we have enormous economic opportunities from the private sector.
Kirkpatrick: Wow. Well, that’s really good stuff. So Eri, tell us a little bit about BioCurious, and how you got there, and then I’d also like you to talk a little bit about the work you’re doing at The Institute for the Future, because there’s some interesting uptake on your bio work that seems to be happening among the companies you work with, that are clients of that group. So what led you to become a bio-hacker?
Gentry: Okay. So, it starts with the childlike curiosity that many of us have, and I try to reference that as often as possible, because it puts people in a different mindspace, when they look to the corner and start thinking about when they were a kid and everything was novel, and everything was something that you could understand, before they differentiated into their lives. So that was a curiosity that I had, participating in science competitions, Science Olympiad, which is an awesome service for kids, by the way. And then I got to college, where the reality of being an economist, which I ended up being, literally, or being a biologist was a decision that I had to make that would forever change my life, apparently. And that’s when I decided, as a naturally shy person, to take the more social route, because I realized how important that was for life and for business, and to put myself on the pathway to science—ah, Freudian slip—toward finance, which I ended up pursuing after college, and as I was offered basically a raise and a better position within my company—and I was an asset manager at the time—I thought, I was so bored and I’d stopped learning, and I wasn’t really doing what I loved. And kids today have the luxury of feeling that, and then doing something about it, which might show you that my parents still have no idea what I’m doing, or why I’m not thinking purely about a job and making money.
So I looked back to where I spent all my free time, and in college I spent a lot of sleepless nights working on papers, but also researching my dad’s condition, which for most of my life was a present factor. He was in a lot of pain, didn’t know what was going on, had gone through lots of surgeries and many doctors, and still was just left with complaints and not much help. So when I was around a junior in college, he got a fatal diagnosis, but for me that seemed like bunk, because basically the diagnosis didn’t seem like the symptoms that he had expressed throughout my lifetime. So I started doing digging, and the best way that I could find answers was to self-filter through thousands of posts that people would share about their health condition, what they were doing to make things better, whether it was supplements, doctor treatments, using heat, cold, yoga, everything, I read through. And it’s a mess out there, but that was the best wisdom I could find, and through all of that data, you eventually find some people who have sometimes used 23andme, and done some crowdsourced research of their own to find out, hey, we all have common symptoms, and it happens that we share this genetic defect.
Kirkpatrick: Like a cruder form of what David was talking about, systematizing—at scale—
Gentry: A cruder form, it’s a very community-driven thing, and people are highly motivated to participate in their own healthcare, and when it comes down to medicine, it means in discovery. So there’s clearly a separation between how we define scientific discovery today and what people are doing off on their own, that most people, most corporations, researchers aren’t paying attention to. But for me, that was a sea change, and I started respecting the wisdom of the crowd or those individual researchers, as they were in my mind, and wanted to follow suit.
Kirkpatrick: Because you ended up figuring out that your father had something other than how he’d been diagnosed, right?
Gentry: Right, so he was diagnosed with emphysema, which is a fatal condition, and it didn’t match up. So I finally found out he had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome—or I suspected it, and so it was later confirmed—which is an anomaly in connective tissue. So quite different, but the doctor really didn’t know the difference, and it takes a genetic test to figure it out, or the other way of figuring it out is literally to do—have them bend over, or check out their spine when they bend over for scoliosis or for anomalies, pull up their skin and look at stretchiness, you can just talk them through their own health history. And if you know what to look for—and that’s what I had basically trained myself to do—then you have some indication of what might be the underlying disorder, which can be fact-checked and hopefully improved later through genetic analysis.
Kirkpatrick: So fast-forward to BioCurious now.
Gentry: Right. So, fast-forwarding, that original example of wisdom in the crowd and redefining expert, to me—me not having any scientific experience, except what I was compelled to do in my free time—I wanted to learn more, and couldn’t find any way to even get an education in science without going back and getting a PhD, which I didn’t want to do. I don’t like school. I didn’t have the time—I respect it, I should say. There had to be a better way. So it took me several years to find some people who would let me volunteer at their little research camp, and that’s where I met the people who were a world apart from any financiers I met. Totally genuine about wanting to save people’s lives, working on diseases of aging, at the SENS Foundation, and I met friends there that I wanted to model myself after. Not knowing enough, I volunteered for whatever I could, including helping them find lab space, equipment. We actually visited Ryan’s space in LA once, and he had a locker full of equipment, and there were all these resources that were just going unused, yet if you’re a scientist in an academic lab, you know that things cost crazy amounts of money because they’re in your budget, so it helps to have expensive equipment that you can budget in, so that you can continue to have that big budget next year. And I’ll mention Tito Jankowski, right there, also a cofounder of BioCurious, in terms of open source data, because when we’re talking about patents, patents don’t allow you, if you’re a hacker, to go and take that design and then find a much better and cheaper way to do it. Yet when PCR—Polymerase Chain Reaction, kind of a DNA copier—came out of patent, he and Josh Perfetto decided to make an open source version of it, and rather than that $10,000 machine, they were able to offer it for $599.
And that’s the kind of thing that can happen when designs are made available, and there’s not someone telling you, “Hey, don’t touch that.” But it opens up the doors for people to participate in this domain, to have fun, to just learn, and that doesn’t mean a lot to some people, but there’s always going to be that one who takes it a step further. So finding people like Tito, and realizing that there were all these tools, and when the alternative was that you could spend $1,000–$6,000 per month just to rent lab space in the Bay Area—which is totally out of range for someone who is just curious, hence the name, or even who is an entrepreneur who is so early stage they don’t have funding yet—those people are going to be out of the game. So—
Kirkpatrick: So you started with some meet-ups, with the lab you already had, and pretty soon it led to BioCurious?
Gentry: Yes, when you don’t have money, you just get people together. So out of our garage lab in Mountain View—by that time, we had started a nonprofit cancer research company, long story behind that—but people wanted to volunteer, and they wanted to come and they wanted to learn, and that’s when you start asking, why aren’t there ways for people who are so passionate and so clearly brilliant to actually get in on the game? Because we need change, we need cures. And so, we thought, we have to do something about it. There were six of us who banded together and raised money on Kickstarter, as the second science project on there, when they were in beta. $35,000—that’s what we thought we needed to start a lab, and now, four years later, I realize it’s kind of silly and naïve, you need much more than that. But we did it anyway, and we still have the lab in Sunnyvale, which allows anyone with any background, just like Counter Culture Labs, to join at $100 a month. That’s a tenfold reduction in price from the standard around the Bay Area. And what happens there is people get together. And speaking of the language that Drew mentioned, when you have an artist and a musician, an economist, a game developer, and a scientist—okay, so a biologist and a physicist—coming together, and they’re trying to talk about hacking a bioprinter, something which Patrik D’haeseleer, right here, has done, you don’t get anywhere by using biological or physics terms. You have to speak like the common man—person—and when you can do that, you can gather wisdom from the crowd, and that’s the kind of thing that happens at BioCurious, which is hugely encouraging. And that’s where things are happening that haven’t been done yet, like the bioprinter that you can find on Instructables, that’s won a number of awards. I think Antony is here who, with a member of BioCurious, started Glowing Plant, which ended up raising half a million dollars on Kickstarter. It’s changing the name of the game, in terms of participation and education. Genspace and BioCurious were named a Top 4 company by Fast Company, for education, and it’s—
Kirkpatrick: We’re going to hear about Genspace a little later, yes.
Gentry: Yes, exactly. And you’ll see, actually, it’s a tight-knit community that crosses over into tech as much as it does biology.
Kirkpatrick: And Ryan, you’re part of that community.
Bethencourt: I am.
Kirkpatrick: And BioCurious was a real groundbreaking kind of experiment that became something really foundational. Now, you are kind of taking something on top of that model and making it into a little more of a for-profit accelerator. Talk about that, and talk about the kind of things you think are going to be possible there. Mention also that Algas thing.
Bethencourt: Yes, oh yes. So I would describe myself for a long time as a frustrated entrepreneur. I followed the classical scientific pathway, I did my first degree in molecular genetics, did a Master’s at Cambridge—it was a fusion between the MBA and the biotech course—and then I went off and I did a Ph.D. I dropped out. Stem cell research. And I wanted to see progress faster in biotech. I didn’t see it. At the time, I actually met Aubrey de Grey, so our stories kind of link in—
Kirkpatrick: That must have been a trip.
Bethencourt: Yes, yes. Aubrey at the time was still in the Cambridge lab that he worked in, so I went over to him, and I talked to him about life extension. We connected. He moved out here, to Silicon Valley. Peter Thiel obviously helped him to establish his foundation, and at the same time something was happening on the bio-hacker front. So there was a little house in Silicon Valley where there was a little lab, and some of the people from SENS that had just left SENS had decided they wanted to do science in their garage, and that’s eventually what led to BioCurious. And at first it was Livly, then BioCurious—it was an interesting evolution. But I still didn’t see—I had a corporate background, I had done a lot of corporate transactional deals with big pharma, Pfizer, Amgen, Genentech, helped them develop drugs. Still too slow. Went off, helped build a couple of biotech companies. I raised the first seed round for two biotech companies, and then realized I still wasn’t seeing what I wanted to see in DIY-bio. It led to the creation of Counter Culture Labs with several other people—Patrik and some of the others from BioCurious, which was a much broader citizen science coalition. And I still saw some of the accelerators and the accelerator models, and I was like, is it too early yet to do this in biotech? And I had been talking a lot with Antony from Glowing Plant, he convinced me that consumer biotech is a thing, and it’s going to be a growing thing, and I kept looking at it from a business perspective, from a science perspective, felt the timing was right—
Kirkpatrick: Consumer biotech, meaning the consumer is making biotech products, or…?
Bethencourt: Products for consumers that are in biotech—
Kirkpatrick: For consumers that biotech labs can develop?
Bethencourt: Yes, yes. So if you look at—so, recently I gave a talk over at Innovation Endeavors, that’s Eric Schmidt’s venture fund, which talked about the rainbows of biotech, right? So, when you look at biotech, there’s medical technology, which we’re really familiar with, but then there’s all of these other applications of biotech. So there’s a company called Novozyme. Novozyme makes a little over $1 billion in revenue off of engineered enzymes. So, enzymes that clean our clothing, that help us brush our teeth—we don’t have algal blooms because we no longer have sulfur in a lot of our detergents. These are big markets already in their own right, we just haven’t—actually, as Drew was saying earlier—the economic potential of biotech, from a consumer perspective, is huge. Energy, food, materials, medicine, and then other novel applications as services, as well. So that’s what we’re developing in labs. So kind of to link that in—
Kirkpatrick: Yes, and quickly get to Algas, and I want to get back to David to talk about some of the parallel issues in IT.
Bethencourt: Yes, so the Algas was one of our little start-ups. So, we opened four or five months ago. Our idea is, one scientist, one idea. We help them piece together the commercial end and the scientific end. Myself and some of my co-founders raised a small seed round from a couple of tech investors, and one from an early Apple employee. Our aim is to accelerate these companies. We have five in. Within the next two months, we’ll have a total of eight. One of them is Algas Biotech, which is the first one to get any major publicity, it got into TechCrunch. And it is an algae bio-battery, which, if it works as we hope it to work, could change the way the battery industry works. So taking out lithium and using biological components instead.
Kirkpatrick: Yes, that’s a nice example of where this goes in unexpected directions.
Bethencourt: Very, yes.
Kirkpatrick: So David, one of the things I’m curious to hear your opinion about, given that you teach and you’ve been an activist, and you’re talking to people globally about these coalitions to open up some of the data—how much do you see the kind of enthusiasm and willingness to put your shoulder to the wheel that these young people are demonstrating as indicative of a movement that’s happening? Do you see that among your students, and what does it lead you to be confident is going to be possible, once this openness that you’re advocating for starts to happen?
Haussler: I see this definitely as a movement, and it is to a certain extent generational. I think this generation coming up, completely intertwined with the Internet, won’t put up with the old-style medicine. The whole medical establishment has not quite come around to the Internet, and that is unconscionable in many ways. There is an increasing demand to do it yourself, find your own information—that was a very inspiring story about how you just dug in and found that—but the Internet can make that so much easier, if we all organize together with the data, at this point. What we have to do is make sure that all of the information that you need is actually available, and that you can add your own information from your own quantified self to that large pool of information, and interact with it. Ted Goldstein here is in the first row. He’s a former Apple VP, and he’s building on this cancer project that I talked about earlier, creating a platform called MedBook which will allow social network-type interactions between physicians, patients, people who are just interested in their health, and this vast reservoir of information that we will demand, jointly, that we will liberate, essentially.
Kirkpatrick: And another key piece of what you really believe is necessary is that we all as individuals really have control of our genetic data, wherever it’s stored, which is not basically the case now either.
Haussler: Absolutely. No. Another thing we discussed at the Global Alliance meeting in London a month ago was the fact that women who are interested in or directly affected by their BRCA1/2 status—this is a gene, those of you who are not familiar with it, that makes you susceptible to breast cancer—want to know how they compare to all of the other women, and yet that data was locked up, as Drew said, in a single company. And now that the Supreme Court decision is down and we have this new feeling of “free the data,” we are all excited about these data being available, and Global Alliance wants to help foster a massive global data-sharing on that scale.
We also have a project called Beacon, where you can ask about specific genetic variants that occur in databases around the world, and as I said, we have our new API that will work. These things build on the methodologies that we created when we first did the human genome. The first thing we did was the genome browser, and that allowed you to look at that one representative genome and all of the biological information that’s known about the different genes in it, and they were keyed to the locations within that one reference genome. Now we have massive amounts of personal genomes, and we can extend that vision beyond that. So things like Browser in a Box was just announced just a few weeks ago. I don’t know if you use the Browser—we have a million hits a day now. We’re by far the most-used reference for the human genome. And you can take that whole capability now and have it on your laptop, with Browser in a Box. And you can do that, where you may have information that you don’t want to share with the rest of the world in an unrestricted way. Maybe you’re not part of George Church’s Personal Genome Project, where you’re literally going to post every DNA base in your genome on the Internet for everybody to see. If you’re not willing to do that, you still want to analyze your genome in the context of thousands of other genomes, you can do that with Browser in a Box. You upload all of your information, and then you can compare it. You can click—anytime that anybody has published a paper with anything on a DNA sequence or a protein sequence or a disease name, it’s all keyed into that. It’s like Google Maps, very fast, for disease exploration.
Kirkpatrick: Well, it’s a little bit like what 23andMe was making possible, but a little bit more under the control of the individual is, I think, the vision, right? With an open source overlay.
Haussler: Absolutely. And what’s exciting about the new era is that 23andMe was based on microarrays, which access about a hundredth of a percent of the genome, and we’re talking about the whole thing, you know, 3 billion bases.
Kirkpatrick: I want to hear from the audience, so let’s get the lights up, but I just quickly want to ask you, David, how much is government an ally and how much is it an impediment to what you’re trying to do?
Haussler: If you presume that government is going to do this for you, than it’s an impediment. There’s no question about it, because—
Kirkpatrick: So they’re not standing in the way, however?
Haussler: The current administration has been cheering us on. At this point, they are very much in favor of the Global Alliance. I talk to government officials when I’m in Washington, which is far more than I would like to be, and they say, “Go for it. You can do what we can’t do.” Besides, it’s a global organization. You can’t have the U.S. Government declaring how everybody in the world should share their genomic data. Who would take that seriously? We’ve got to do a non-governmental play—
Kirkpatrick: People in Washington, perhaps? But, no. But that’s great, that’s good. Over here.
Una Ryan: I’m Una Ryan from the Bay Area BioEconomy Initiative, and I’ve agreed with almost everything I’ve heard so far in the meeting, but I still think we’re worrying about the beginning of the story, the genomics, the molecules, the manufacturing, the sort of varisized problem. The elephant in the room that costs all that money and takes all that time in developing therapies are the clinical trials and the regulatory process. So, following your question about the role of government, I want you to tell us how all our new technologies are going to help that, or what you would substitute for safety and quality in whatever is manufactured in a distributed way? I mean, I can make a really bad cup of tea with my teabag, you know, so I just want to know how you would envisage that happening, the quality.
Bethencourt: I mean, I’ve been involved heavily in clinical development, so from first IND submission, all the way through to phase 1, phase 2, phase 3, and approval, post-approval work. The FDA is slowly responding, with the breakthrough status indication, that’s kind of a response from the FDA, but there are also other people willing to do things that are outside the FDA’s purview. There’s grinders—so this is something very new—who are willing to hack their own bodies. And there are maybe a couple hundred grinders, so far, but they’ll do extreme things to their body that are not approved. So either the regulation has to catch up, or people are going to start taking the tools of biology and doing their own thing.
Kirkpatrick: Well, another thing, one of the implications of Andrew’s argument in his first opening talk is that the FDA’s rules make no sense at all if you’re developing drugs for individuals, because you can’t do the kind of testing that we’ve talked about in the past. So something has to completely give if we’re going to move into that kind of a universe. It’s sort of a way of trumping—in addition to its other virtues—the regulatory backlog and this incredible problem we’ve had with the time it takes.
Okay, we’ve got one or two more, quickly.
Arif Shaikh: Hello, my name is Ari—
Gentry: Can I interrupt? Yes, to Una’s point, and also to everything that we’re talking about, getting more people involved and I think more people caring, by using the right type of language to make information actually understandable is hugely important. What’s going on with the quantified self and the distribution of data or devices that capture real biometric data that theoretically could be used in a clinical trial, if those data were acceptable by the FDA. And as a former employee of a medical device–maker, you really don’t want to go down the FDA route if you don’t have to. But if people have their data, if they have access to their own genetic data, nothing stops them from comparing theirs to the reference genome if it’s available, and if you get data analysts in there with some training, that you can get, say, at a community biolab, then I think it’s possible to get those same learnings which maybe don’t have the same merit as clinical trial.
Haussler: It’s a tough question. There’s no way we’re going to speed up the development of small molecules in the current way that the pharmaceutical industry does to attack personalized medicine. My personal feeling is that our best bet is we will learn more about the immune system and how to tweak it, and I won’t go into details, because I see we’re running out of time, but there are different technologies—I wouldn’t, like Andrew would actually design a virus to do this, but I would tweak the immune system—and I think we’re going to get into a case where instead of these slow clinical trials, we’ll have a massive network of information that’s constantly being shared on a real-time basis, and we’re in this constant learning loop from this huge amount of information. And that is like one massive clinical trial on the Internet, where all the information is as open as possible, and the new technologies are coming up that aren’t the traditional, “let’s design a small molecule that can be put in a pill”–type therapies—
Kirkpatrick: Another way that just renders the current system essentially irrelevant, in effect?
Haussler: Yes. It will force it to change. I wouldn’t say render it irrelevant, but will force it to change.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, now somebody back there had a question. I want to let them ask it, or comment, and then we’ve got to really wrap.
Shaikh: All right, my name is Arif Shaikh [PH— 0:36:30.1]. I’m a cell biologist. I basically started working with endothelial cells and then I later went on to do some project with the HEK 293 cell line, doing some oncological research, and I actively participate in BioCurious lab as a volunteer. I don’t have my own projects, I don’t want to join on a membership basis, but I come in on a communal, volunteer basis. But the question I have, is there going to be any wet lab assignment? Because my expertise is directly wet lab and working with the cell culture and such, these type of projects.
Gentry: Hey. I saw a number of BioCurious people. It’s great to have you all here. We have our middle-schooler who comes to almost every single class we have.
Kirkpatrick: You’re in middle school? That’s great.
Gentry: And his dad, who says, “I’m just his dad,” which is awesome. To speak to the wet lab work, I think it’s a necessity, and it’s that part of biology and life sciences that separates us from the digital world. It’s not just an online kind of problem, although there is so much to be explored there. And we currently don’t have coordinated resources. I think we need to go back to—again, we keep referencing Drew, but there are problems with lack of standards in safety, with data from a community lab being shared with a large company, with a pharma, included in a clinical trial. These are the sorts of standards that BioCurious, for example, doesn’t have the capacity to solve yet. But we do get so many requests, and, “Hey do you have a scientist who could do this lab work for me?” And there are people who would rather be thinking about the problems and outsource the work. And I think it’s a place that we need to go. Maybe we can have that discussion here.
Kirkpatrick: Well, great. We have to wrap because we’ve got a lot of other great stuff coming, but thank you to all three of you. It was a great conversation.


David Haussler

Director, Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering, UC Santa Cruz

Eri Gentry

Technology Horizons Research Manager, Institute for the Future

Ryan Bethencourt

Program Director and Venture Partner, Indie.Bio

David Kirkpatrick

Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Techonomy

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