Six months ago, Autodesk opened a skunk works on Pier 9 in San Francisco. The two-story waterfront space—a TechShop on steroids—houses top-of-the-line 3D printers, a precision water jet cutter, wood and metal shops, an industrial kitchen, and pretty much any other tool an inventor could possibly want. Tucked away in a corner, there’s also a skunk works within the skunk works. Here, Andrew Hessel and a team of designers, programmers, and scientists are working on what is perhaps Autodesk’s most ambitious project: building software and hardware that will simplify the task of designing and fabricating living things, including viruses, bacteria, and even human organs. “What’s beautiful about software is that it makes complex jobs easy,” he says.
Hessel is an evangelist for synthetic biology, a radical cousin of genetic engineering done with digital tools. He’s also a distinguished research scientist at Autodesk, the $11.4 billion software company best known for AutoCAD, which engineers use to design everything from sunglasses to skyscrapers. It is not yet clear when Autodesk will commercialize its newest design tools, but democratizing access to synthetic biology may hasten growth in a field that could, according to Hessel, revolutionize energy production and water purification, to name two areas.
Oh, and maybe cure cancer. Each tumor has its own DNA. Hessel’s mission is to create straightforward, accessible tools to synthesize viruses that will attack only cells carrying specific genetic markers. And because each medicine would be unique to one patient, there would be no need to wait for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. “Oncolytic viruses are really well studied,” he says. “The only thing I’m bringing to this [idea] is, well, now you don’t have to be a drug company or even a biologist to go make a virus.”
At a bistro not far from Autodesk’s offices, Hessel pours himself cup after cup of coffee. “If not for my wife, this is all I’d ever consume,” he says. Lanky with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and stubble, he’s wearing red-framed Marc Jacobs glasses, jeans, a black sports coat, and black boots. A small circle is tattooed on his left ring finger, his version of a wedding band. Naturally, he met his wife at a TED conference.
“Thousands of people might contribute to the cure of one person”
Hessel, a 50-year-old Canadian, worked from 1995 to 2002 in genomics and bioanalysis at Amgen, the pharmaceutical company. The race to sequence the human genome was going strong, and he spent his days surrounded by computer monitors. “You had to drag me away from work to sleep,” he says. At one point, he sold his house and moved into the office, though he also bought a 38-foot sailboat where he slept some nights. “My workplace was the address on my driver’s license,” he says. “I even installed one of those compact European washer-dryers in our conference room.”
Eventually, Hessel grew frustrated by slow results. “In seven years we never made another drug, despite spending $1 billion on research,” he says. “Everything we’d done hadn’t changed drug development, hadn’t made it faster or cheaper.”
In 1999, Hessel heard about a group that had modified an inkjet printer, replacing the ink with a chemical needed to synthesize DNA. “When I saw that you could print short segments of DNA in really high density, I knew that synthetic biology would be possible,” he says. Floored by what seemed like the next logical step in medicine and life sciences, he went to his bosses. “I said, ‘Let’s start building tools to write DNA’—and they weren’t interested.” In 2002, Hessel sold his boat and divested from Amgen. He spent the next 10 years crisscrossing North America, visiting academics and biohackers to learn everything possible about his future field, which had not yet been given a name.
These days, the system for delivering better cancer drugs still needs a jolt. President Nixon declared a war on cancer during his 1971 State of the Union address, but progress in fighting the disease remains dismal. In 2012, 8.2 million people died of cancer, according to the World Health Organization, up from 6.4 million in 2000, a per capita increase from 105 per 100,000 to 116. Drug companies can take 15 years and spend more than $1 billion to develop new treatments. Once on the market, the drug may be used on thousands of patients broadly, although each patient suffers from a genetically unique cancer. That means any two patients with prostate cancer, for example, may have drastically different reactions to the same drug. Companies such as Genentech are working to improve the pharmaceutical industry’s trial system through such methods as identifying patients likely to benefit from a particular drug and enrolling only those with appropriate genetic or molecular signatures.
Hessel is impatient for bigger disruptions and says synthetic biology could deliver them. Over the past decades, scientists have learned how to translate the four letters of the genetic alphabet—A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine), and T (thymine)—into the ones and zeros of binary code. Synthetic biology is the reverse process. “Cells are like tiny computers,” says Hessel. “And DNA is like software.” Today, dozens of DNA print shops can turn digital designs into biology, essentially by what Hessel calls “3D printing DNA.” Biohackers and academics at prestigious institutions are using these tools to do all sorts of things, both freakish and useful. They’ve grown glow-in-the-dark plants and managed to add unnatural base pairs, such as X and Y, to the DNA alphabet. Groups at several universities have engineered bacterial cells that selectively target and invade cancer cells before releasing toxic enzymes.
Meanwhile, young people are flooding the field. Even Bill Gates told Wired that if he were a kid today, he’d go into hacking biology. Hessel is certain that we’re on the cusp of a revolution that will surpass information technology as a driver of economic growth and societal change. “There’s only a few things I’m absolutely sure about in life,” he says. “One of them is computers get faster, better, cheaper. And the other one is that reading and writing DNA also gets faster, better, cheaper.”
There remain significant dangers. In 2002 a Stony Brook University professor synthesized the polio virus using mail-order DNA. Three years later influenza researchers re-created the 1918-19 Spanish flu virus, which at the time killed more than 20 million people. Hessel warns it may eventually become possible to create personalized bioweapons targeting only people with a specific genetic makeup. And genomic information is easy to acquire: “If Brad Pitt goes for coffee, the spoon [he uses] has his DNA,” says Hessel. “You can sequence it and learn more about Brad Pitt’s medical background than Brad knows.”
Some safeguards are already in place. Reputable DNA synthesis shops scan every order for dangerous sequences to ensure they don’t unwittingly produce the Ebola virus, smallpox, or other known pathogens. Hessel says global bioterrorism and biosecurity establishments are still far behind the curve and that more safety measures need to be put in place, but he’s convinced synthetic biology will do more good than harm.
Autodesk has already created tools for scientists, such as CADnano, used to design 3D DNA origami nanostructures. It has also released a rolling beta of Project Cyborg, a cloud-based platform for programming matter that offers a range of services, including molecular modeling and simulation. Users can look at viruses in 3D, “like you’re looking at the design of a building,” says Hessel. “It becomes real; it’s really fantastic—and underneath that 3D model is the genetic code.”
The software giant has several research partners, including Organovo, a startup that uses bioprinting technology to manufacture human tissues, and Harvard’s Wyss Institute, which develops biologically inspired materials and devices. George Church, a professor at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading researcher in synthetic biology and genomic science, says Autodesk’s tools “have been quite relevant to our efforts.” Skylar Tibbits, who directs MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, says he’s excited about Project Cyborg’s cross-disciplinary potential. “I could use it, a biologist could use it, an engineer could use it, and we could all work on similar phenomenon,” he says. “That’s a huge paradigm shift.”
Tools, of course, aren’t everything. “Biology is hard, and design tools really aren’t the rate-limiting thing,” says Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. “What’s rate-limiting is getting control of the biological mechanisms.” Still, he says, we will likely see a co-evolution of tools and scientific progress: “I view what Autodesk is doing as a great indication of the acceptance and beginning of maturation of the field,” he says. As for Hessel, Gershenfeld doesn’t know him but says he is likely oversimplifying the challenges of synthetic biology, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Futurists can have a poor reputation among the scientists, but they serve a useful role,” he says. “They help articulate implications that people aren’t recognizing.” Gershenfeld adds, “They have a pretty good record of doing it.”
Hessel has already started building a community of would-be users. In 2009, before joining Autodesk, he founded Pink Army Cooperative, a nonprofit, member-owned biotech startup that aims to one day use open-source development to produce cheap cures for breast cancer. “Can you imagine a cancer treatment made just for you, in a day, for free? And with almost no side effects,” Hessel wrote on Pink Army’s website. “It sounds like science fiction, but I believe it’s within reach if we work together.”
The idea is that doctors would take samples of a patient’s tumor and sequence their DNA. Next, Pink Army members and anyone interested would analyze the genomic information online and design a virus strain to track down and kill cells bearing the cancer’s specific biological traits. The virus particles would then be produced and purified. Before injecting the resulting medication into a patient’s tumor or bloodstream, doctors would test it on samples of both the patient’s normal and diseased tissues.
Because tumors can have a mixed population of cancer cells and these cells can have hundreds of DNA mutations, patients would likely need to be treated with several custom-made viruses, but Hessel points out that his open-sourced model could create an essentially bottomless pharmacy. “If it costs me next to nothing to make the design and I’m testing it on your cells in a dish anyway, I can test a thousand designs,” he says. “Thousands of people might contribute to the cure of one person.”
Hessel sold almost 600 Pink Army memberships for $20 each before putting the fundraising on hold. He recognizes that the organization is still more of an idea than reality. “The reason I’m working with Autodesk is so we have the capabilities for a group like Pink Army to actually work,” he says.
Hessel freely admits that his visions are far off. “I like to say I live five years in the future,” he says. “I know it’s going to come together; all I’m trying to do is grease the wheels a little.” As for Pink Army, he says doctors will be skeptical and that the hardest part will be getting the idea to work at all, let alone work well. But that doesn’t damp Hessel’s optimism. “We’ve been fighting cancer for so long,” he says, “we actually forget that we might win.”