At a meeting on synthetic biology held at MIT, the drug company Novartis said it has synthesized hybrid flu genomes in a process that could shave weeks off the time required to produce vaccines. When new flu strain emerges, government agencies normally send samples to vaccine manufacturers, who grow large numbers of the pathogen in chicken eggs as starting material for vaccines, says Philip Dormitzer, leader of viral vaccine research for Novartis. This process can take months and can miss the peak of an outbreak. But Novartis, working with synthetic biologists, has developed a way of chemically synthesizing virus genomes and growing them in tissue culture cells. That saves time and may produce more effective vaccines.
In 2011, the team tested its method in response to a mock outbreak of a bird-flu virus (one closely related to the H7N9 virus currently spreading in China). Starting at 8 a.m. on Monday that year, the team began to chemically synthesize a viral genome based on sequence data, says Dormitzer. By noon the following Friday, the team had confirmed that it had live virus growing in cell culture.
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