Synthetic biology amps up ‘decades-old’ vaccine technology

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Credit: Kent Sievers/Omaha World-Herald/AP

According to STAT, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institute of Health (NIH) are betting on synthetic biology to outperform nature in engineering new vaccines against the COVID-19 virus.

It’s a movement several years in the works. The idea is simple: we can already “train” the human immune system to recognize, hunt down, and attack invaders using variations of the viral enemy; chunks of virus, living viruses with kneecapped infection abilities. Scientists already largely understand how to trigger a safe immune response based on the makeup of a virus.

With synthetic biology, why can’t we amp up those responses multi-fold?

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Thanks to breakneck-speed advances in genome sequencing and synthesis, it’s now relatively simple to engineer components of a virus that are critical for triggering an immune response. To synthetic biologists, this represents a critical opportunity to revamp a sluggish vaccine-engineering industry based on decades-old technology. Why conform to nature when there’s a chance to outwit its designs?

If COVID-19 ever comes back, or another coronavirus epidemic emerges—a high chance, epidemiologists say—synthetic biology could offer us a plug-and-play universal vaccine. One that’s produced at scale, doesn’t need refrigeration, and can be easily tailored to a new outbreak and shipped to the entire world.

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