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In pandemics, rapid DNA synthesis accelerates vaccine development

November 24, 2020  |  Dan Gibson

Back in 2013, I played a small role in response to what then seemed like the next potential pandemic — an outbreak of H7N9, an avian influenza virus. At the time, I was working with Novartis scientists, and we were trying to speed up vaccine development with new tools my team developed for the emerging synthetic biology field. I remember getting the call about H7N9 and realizing that, unlike our previous experiments together, this one was not a drill. They emailed me viral genome sequences, and my job was to use our technology for rapid, accurate DNA synthesis to build the genomic constructs for a vaccine candidate.

Thankfully, H7N9 never did turn into the pandemic we feared. The vaccine candidates I helped design did not have to be deployed, though they became an essential part of the nation’s pandemic preparedness stockpile.

My experience with the H7N9 vaccine comes to mind as we make our uncertain way through the very real coronavirus pandemic we face today. One of the most significant differences between that experience and today is that the DNA synthesis technology we used in 2013 to build new vaccines is no longer unique to my laboratory. Thanks to Codex DNA, all of those protocols have been pulled together into an automated instrument that is now available in hundreds of labs around the world.

Already, our customers have stepped up in the fight against COVID-19. At the University of Washington, for example, molecular virologist Jesse Erasmus built five vaccine candidates for the SARS-CoV-2 virus using our BioXp™ system, and started mouse trials in less than two weeks of launching his project. That kind of speed was unimaginable until recently.

Here’s how it works: The BioXp™ system is a push-button automated platform for building gene fragments, libraries, and clones. It can build as many as 32 complex genes in an overnight run, generating more than 10 μg of transfection-ready DNA output per gene. Scientists submit an online order with Codex DNA for their DNA; we send them a reagent plate with all the raw materials needed; they load the reagent plate we provide on their BioXp™ system and press Start. The next day, they’ve got their DNA constructs.

There are many different approaches to developing vaccines, and the technology within the BioXp™ system supports all of them. Whether you’re trying to create vaccines that use DNA, RNA, viral vectors, or live attenuated viruses, the BioXp™ system can slash weeks from the development timeframe. We no longer have to rely on antiquated processes like using chicken eggs to build vaccines. By combining the advances in DNA reading with the advances we’re making in DNA synthesis, we can now go from DNA sequence to viral genome constructs for vaccine production in as little as five days.

Because the BioXp™ system is distributed all over the world, scientists can not only keep up with a rapidly evolving virus, but also develop regionally relevant vaccines if specific mutations become localized. Never before have we had this ability to conceive of vaccine development as an agile and dynamic process. And beyond the vaccine realm, the BioXp™ system can help scientists develop much-needed diagnostic tests, and even therapeutics.

The team at Codex DNA has worked diligently to develop the BioXp™ system and make our rapid, accurate DNA synthesis technology for building biology available to all labs. We are inspired by how quickly our customers have deployed this tool in the fight against the SARS-CoV-2, and are impressed by their early wins with new vaccine candidates.

We are actively engaging with companies, government agencies, and academic institutions to share our expertise in DNA synthesis and vaccine design, and we will continue to serve the community in any way we can. Please let me know if there’s anything my team and I can do to support your efforts in battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dan Gibson is the CTO of Codex DNA. He oversees Codex DNA’s world-class R&D team and sets the technical vision for the company.

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