India must take the lead in devising bio-defences
India must use genomics, synthetic biology, sensors, 3D printing, and AI to analyse data and develop treatmentsUpdated: Sep 22, 2020, 23:40 IST
Although China may not have deliberately created Covid-19, it is possible that its release was the result of a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been doing “gain-of-function” research on bat coronaviruses. Such research modifies a virus to make it deadlier or more transmissible — specifically, transmissible between species. We may never know the truth of the virus’s origin. But, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the Chinese government what is possible: To decimate global economies without inviting a significant economic or geopolitical toll itself. So there are new dangers.
Gene editing has now made it possible to engineer viruses whose effects range from Covid-19 to the bubonic plague. And the danger comes not only from governments: Rogue scientists and bio-hackers have access to the same tools. This is why India must take the lead in developing bio-defences. In my book, The Driver in the Driverless Car, I warned about the dangers of gene editing, forecasting that, in an era of bio-ethicists and bio-hackers, we will have to make difficult choices about whether to restrict the synthetic-biology technologies making the manufacture of these viruses possible. The danger is acute, the book explains, because in the near future, we will routinely have our genetic material analysed. With Artificial Intelligence (AI) and genomic data, scientists will decipher the complex relationships between DNA and biological processes and find treatments for diseases. Later in this decade, we will be able to download and “print” at home medicines, tissues, and bacteria custom-designed to suit our DNA and keep us healthy.
As we are seeing with the development of vaccines for the Sars-CoV-2 virus, accelerated research and development is possible. In the past, the creation and testing of vaccine candidates against pathogens have taken decades. Now, we are on track to do it within months. There are several companies using genomic blueprints made of DNA or ribonucleic acid (RNA) to teach the body how to defend itself from Covid-19. By injecting these into human cells, they cause them to produce virus antigens — which the immune system reacts to. The Moderna Therapeutics and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine candidates, now in phase-three clinical trials, were developed in weeks; it is conceivable that the same could be done in hours once the technologies are perfected.
In the updated Indian edition of The Driver in the Driverless Car, I included details of a cancer-cure plan that I presented to Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi at Kevadia, Gujarat, last October, a plan predicated on India’s readiness to embrace advancing technologies. With these, India has the potential not only to provide its people with the most-advanced medical care but also to cure cancer itself. It can lead the world in research and innovation and lay the foundation for a trillion-dollar medical industry. I proposed that in order to achieve this, India launch the largest clinical trial in world history and use technologies such as genomics, synthetic biology, sensors, 3D printing, and AI to analyse data and develop treatments. Not only will this provide direct benefit to cancer patients; the discoveries will lead to the creation of hundreds of start-ups in India and fuel innovation in the medical sciences. This is the type of initiative that India must launch in preparation for the next pandemic.
India could also accelerate the process of testing vaccines — which has become the slowest part of the development cycle. In testing cancer drugs, for example, labs all over the world are creating three-dimensional cell cultures, “patient-derived organoids”, from a tumour biopsy. The leading company in this field, SEngine Precision Medicine, is able to test more than 100 cancer drugs on organoids, using the tumours rather than human subjects as guinea pigs. Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute announced in January that they had developed the first human “organ-on-a-chip” model of the lung that accurately recapitulates human physiology and pathophysiology at organ sophistication. Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers have been developing a microfluidic platform that connects engineered tissues from up to 10 organs, allowing the replication of human-organ interactions for weeks at a time and measurement of the effects of drugs on different body parts. Many more such systems are in development that could accelerate testing and treatment; and these are the missing component of bio-defence testing.
All of these technologies can be designed and developed in India, with an investment comparable to the cost of the Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan-2 missions. In my conversation with him, I found PM Modi to be brilliant in understanding technologies and their potential. He was excited about having India take the global leader in medical research, and asked his chief scientific adviser, K Vijay Raghavan, to present him with a proposal to implement it by February. Then Covid-19 happened and all efforts were put on hold. It is time for India to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by the coronavirus — and to implement the grand plans to build its bio-defences and benefit the world by curing disease.
Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program of Harvard Law School and the author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future
The views expressed are personal