Cambrian Genomics, which has created a promising laser DNA-printing technology, has raised a sizable $10 million round of funding, by far the largest in the company’s history.
In a pair of interviews, on and off the stage at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna today, the CEO of San Francisco-based Cambrian Genomics explained the mission of his company, which is often benignly described as “laser-printing DNA.”
So what does that mean?
“We want to make everything that is alive on the planet,” he explained. “Everything that is alive is not optimal. It can be made better.”
But he doesn’t have plans for replication: “We want to make totally new organisms that have never existed,” he said. “And replace every existing organism with a better one. It just seems obvious that eventually every human will be designed on a computer.”
Powerful DNA laser printing technology
Scientists modify the DNA of living organisms for many reasons: to make plants resistant to herbicides and pests, for example, or to make research animals mimic human conditions and diseases.
Editing DNA has become significantly less costly over the last decade, and Cambrian has modified or built machines that make the process even cheaper and faster. Traditionally, Heinz said, machines create DNA strands one at a time and many of them contain errors. His method makes millions of strands at once, errors and all, to also generate a few correct ones.
When Cambrian receives an order for specific genes, it adds DNA chemicals millions of times onto tiny beads that are then layered onto a glass slide. A machine assigns a color to each DNA chemical. The next step is the key one: A laser programmed to analyze the color combinations ignores the erroneous strands and “prints” the correct ones by pushing them apart from the rest. The final product arrives on a small plastic plate as a powder that customers put inside the cells of an organism.
Right now, employees check each order to make sure that a customer isn’t printing, say, base pairs of Ebola. But staff won’t have time to do that if, as Heinz predicts, orders dramatically increase in the next two years. In that case, he said, Cambrian might first ship the plates to an independent facility where experts would put the DNA inside cells, film and analyze it, and make sure that it is safe before releasing it.
Eugenics but only with modifications and without abortions or killing
Heinz and other scientists have years of technical hurdles to clear before they can create living, breathing humans from a plate of printed DNA. Such an act is not possible right now. But he doesn’t hide his enthusiasm about the possibility.
Is he essentially enabling eugenics? He rejects that term, which to him means government interference with reproductive rights. He insists that it differs from his approach, which he describes as allowing individuals to eliminate future suffering in a more humane way than abortion, “which is pretty barbaric.” “A decent percentage of people have really nasty mutations that cause really bad, horrible things,” like Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis, he said. “These are basically like hell on Earth, and I think it’s smart to be able to avoid those things.”
Driving costs down for custom DNA
Cambrian currently prints DNA for Roche, GlaxoSmithKline and Thermo Fisher Scientific at 5 to 6 cents per DNA letter, Heinz said. Next year, the company wants to open a pilot version of the service to academics at a steep discount: $50 for 20 distinct 500-letter strands of DNA.
Current Products and Markets
Cambrian’s second major product isn’t so much novel as it is sensational, even controversial.
Heinz spoke yesterday at the DEMO conference about one of the companies in Cambrian’s new accelerator program. The company, called Personal Probiotics, uses Cambrian’s “Creature Creator” to print a special virus that kills off microbes in the vagina that cause yeast infections and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
The product, called “Sweet Peach,” also reduces vaginal odor, which is what most in the media have seized upon, and not in a way that was very complimentary, or fair, to Cambrian. The pleasant “peach” odor is created as an indicator that it is working within the woman’s body, Heinz said.
Cambrian’s technology is already being used for far less sensitive, and perhaps more useful, use cases. The company has been doing work printing DNA for the huge pharma company Glaxo Smith Kline. It’s also in talks to formalize a similar business relationship with Roche.
Big pharma companies are asking Cambrian to print various types of DNA that can be used in the drug discovery and testing process.
“We’re helping them make drugs,” Heinz said. For example, Cambrian’s DNA can be used for producing small molecules or for making new screens to find small molecules, Heinz said. “DNA can be used for every part of the process,” Heinz said.
Heinz says that his company also intends to print DNA for customers in the industrial chemical and agricultural industries. He says producing seeds used by consumers is in itself a million-dollar industry.
But perhaps the biggest initiative going on at Cambrian now is the development of its incubator, which supplies resources and work space to companies building products on the DNA-printing technology.
SOURCES – Venture Beat, Cambrian Genomics, Vimeo, Youtube, SFGate