Interview: I want to print personalised cancer drugs in a day

Biohacker Andrew Hessel's open-source drug company aims to make bespoke cancer-fighting viruses using DNA printers – paid for by a Netflix-style subscription

New Scientist, 15 December 2014

  Image: Simon Kuo

Image: Simon Kuo

Biohacker Andrew Hessel's open-source drug company aims to make bespoke cancer-fighting viruses using DNA printers – paid for by a Netflix-style subscription

You worked in big pharma. Why did you leave?
More than a decade ago, I was with a large biopharma company where I learned first-hand that drug development wasn't really working. Putting tremendous resources into R&D didn't necessarily produce a lot of results, even though we used the most advanced genetic technologies and the best people. I decided to re-evaluate my career, and spent a year on the beach in Thailand thinking about what to do next.

Did inspiration hit you regarding a better way to make drugs?
I had seen technology for printing DNA as far back as 1998 and I thought "this is the answer", because it meant you didn't need to be in a lab to do genetic engineering. You can do the design on computers – something I was very familiar with in bioinformatics – and then print the DNA.

In 2004, I focused on synthetic biology, and in 2009 founded the first cooperative biotech company, Pink Army Cooperative.

It's really about making a specific medicine tailored to one person – "N-of-1" medicine – rather than trying to make it a best fit for a whole population. My vision is to create a personalised treatment that can be made in a day by printing bespoke cancer-fighting viruses. We want to get some of the world's best virologists taking part in the design process, so we have made it open source. It's within reach of any scientist that wants to try it in their own labs.

That's a very ambitious vision, isn't it?
I've never claimed that these technologies will be able to cure anyone first off. The aim is to demonstrate that you can sit at a laptop and design a virus that you believe will infect and kill specific cancer cells, have that virus printed, and test it in culture, all for a few hundred dollars. It is a revolutionary idea for people who think it costs a billion dollars to build a personalised drug... or any drug.

Is that feasible with the state of technology?
In 2012 I joined Autodesk, headquartered in San Francisco, California, which focuses on design software, in part to explore exactly this. At that time, the DNA-synthesis firms out there could not routinely print even the smallest viral genomes. But by the end of 2013, some of these firms were calling me back saying they could do it. What we're seeing is just the start of being able to make more and more virus particles really inexpensively. So the question now is how do we put together this whole pipeline to design, build and test cancer drugs?

Why focus on cancer-fighting viruses?
For lots of reasons. For me, they are the best examples of inexpensive programmable drugs. And they can hack a cancer cell and turn it into a virus-manufacturing plant, so you only need a very small amount of virus to act as a seed.

The focus also has to be on something we can design and customise easily using software. A virus is not dumb like a chemical, which does one job. A virus has logic mechanisms and switches, so they are very tunable and programmable: in viral engineering, you can actually build combinations of segments of code into your design. We also need to be able to print these viruses using DNA printers, so it's useful that they have only a small amount of DNA. Finally, there is a very long history of oncolytic – cancer-fighting – viruses being used in R&D.

Have such viruses been successfully used?
There were no good anecdotal cases of oncolytic virus use until a few years ago. One of the first I saw was the case of Emily Whitehead, who as a 6-year-old had horrific childhood leukaemia that was treated using an engineered HIV virus (modified so it couldn't cause disease) that reprogrammed her immune cells to fight off her cancer. That was a dramatic success.

And earlier this year, the Mayo Clinic published a paper on two people with multiple myeloma. The researchers used a modified measles virus and showed that it perfectly targeted the cancer in both patients. These cancers were resistant to other treatments, and one patient went into full remission after one viral treatment. These types of case are what you'd expect from N-of-1 treatments. They are the beacons for ongoing development.

Once you have the DNA-printing technology up and running, what happens?
I'm going to build and test this in three stages. Once the technical foundation is in place, we'll take some cancer cells in culture and open up the software for researchers to design a cancer-fighting virus and test it against those cells. Step two is doing this in cats and dogs. There is already a large field of oncolytics in veterinary science, but it's mainly palliative and such processes have as many side effects in dogs and cats as in humans because vets are really just repurposing human therapies. If we can prove the technology in the animal model, it will provide the foundation for the third step – starting work with humans.