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Harris James Associates Biomedicine News: Can Hobbyists and Hackers Transform Biotechnology?

04-27-2011 08:34 AM CET | Business, Economy, Finances, Banking & Insurance

Press release from: Harris James Associates

James Harris Associates mission is to embrace our client's goals as our own and to work as an extension of the client organization to reach our common objective. We know that we will be successful only if we make our clients more successful.
DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, Marcus Wohlsen explores the new movement in garage-based biotech. By Amanda Gefter.
For most of us, managing our health means visiting a doctor. The more serious our concerns, the more specialized a medical expert we seek. Our bodies often feel like foreign and frightening lands, and we are happy to let someone with an MD serve as our tour guide. For most of us, our own DNA never makes it onto our personal reading list.
Biohackers are on a mission to change all that. These do-it-yourself biology hobbyists want to bring biotechnology out of institutional labs and into our homes. Following in the footsteps of revolutionaries like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who built the first Apple computer in Jobs's garage, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who invented Google in a friend's garage, biohackers are attempting bold feats of genetic engineering, drug development, and biotech research in makeshift home laboratories.
In Biopunk, journalist Marcus Wohlsen surveys the rising tide of the biohacker movement, which has been made possible by a convergence of better and cheaper technologies. For a few hundred dollars, anyone can send some spit to a sequencing company and receive a complete DNA scan, and then use free software to analyze the results. Custom-made DNA can be mail-ordered off websites, and affordable biotech gear is available on Craigslist and eBay.
Wohlson discovers that biohackers, like the open-source programmers and software hackers who came before, are united by a profound idealism. They believe in the power of individuals as opposed to corporate interests, in the wisdom of crowds as opposed to the single-mindedness of experts, and in the incentive to do good for the world as opposed to the need to turn a profit. Suspicious of scientific elitism and inspired by the success of open-source computing, the bio DIYers believe that individuals have a fundamental right to biological information, that spreading the tools of biotech to the masses will accelerate the pace of progress, and that the fruits of the biosciences should be delivered into the hands of the people who need them the most.
With all their ingenuity and idealism, it's difficult not to root for the biohackers Wohlsen meets. Take MIT grad student Kay Aull, who built her own genetic testing kit in her closet after her father was diagnosed with the hereditary disease hemochromatosis. "Aull's test does not represent new science but a new way of doing science," Wohlsen writes. Aull's self-test for the disease-causing mutation came back positive.
Or take Meredith Patterson, who is trying to create a cheap, decentralized way to test milk for melamine poisoning without relying on government regulators. Patterson has written a "Biopunk Manifesto" that reads in part, "Scientific literacy empowers everyone who possesses it to be active contributors to their own health care, the quality of their food, water and air, their very interactions with their own bodies and the complex world around them."
Biohackers Josh Perfetto and Tito Jankowski created OpenPCR, a cheap, hackable DNA Xerox machine (PCR stands for "polymerase chain reaction," the name for a method of replicating DNA). Interested biohackers can pre-order one for just over $500 or, once it's ready, download the blueprint free and make their own. According to the website, its apps include DNA sequencing and a test to "check that sushi is legit." Jankowski "hopes to introduce young people to the tools and techniques of biotech in a way that makes gene tweaking as much a part of everyday technology as texting," Wohlsen writes. Jankowski, together with Joseph Jackson and Eri Gentry, also founded BioCurious, a collaborative lab space for biohackers in the Bay area. "Got an idea for a startup? Join the DIY, 'garage biology' movement and found a new breed of biotech," their website exhorts.

James Harris Associates is devoted to providing operational, technological, and regulatory services to the Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology industries. Our confidential services are provided in manufacturing, quality, engineering, materials management and logistics, regulatory, and training. We routinely serve clients in the United States, Europe and Asia. Skilled consultants assist in facility or process upgradesm validation, start-up, new facility design, location services, FDA liaison, and product registration.

James Harris Associates mission is to embrace our client's goals as our own and to work as an extension of the client organization to reach our common objective. We know that we will be successful only if we make our clients more successful.

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