DNA, a la carte
In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first human vaccine to offer protection against the H5N1 influenza virus, commonly known as avian or bird flu. Yet, in the event that a viral strain began spreading from human to human, the vaccine is expected to provide only limited protection until a tailored vaccine could be developed and produced.
The freedom to synthesize the precise DNA sequences you want would change the way people do molecular biology, making it possible to create new enzymes, proteins or even new genomes.
Jingdong Tian, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and a member of the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, is developing a low-cost, high-throughput gene and genome synthesis technology that could greatly speed the production of gene-based, quick-response vaccines to help stall future pandemics of bird flu or other viral outbreaks. Rather than synthesize and test candidate genes for their ability to spark the immune system's defenses one by one, the new method takes advantage of DNA microarray technology to synthesize large numbers of DNA sequences on a single chip.
A scientist would need only to enter the desired DNA sequences into a computer and their chemical syntheses would begin. The ability to produce genes on demand would also make it easy to edit viral genes--changing their sequences without altering the makeup of the proteins they encode--in ways that would increase their activity level in human cells and make the resulting vaccines more effective. The work is supported by a Hartwell Foundation Individual Biomedical Research Award.