Synthetic Genomics (SGI) and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) have formed a new company, Synthetic Genomics Vaccines (SGVI), to develop next-generation vaccines based on synthetic genome technology. The new firm has already inked a three-year alliance with Novartis to develop a bank of synthetic seed viruses as a rapid-response technology for the production of annual or pandemic flu vaccines. The collaboration will be supported by a U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) grant.
SGVI will exploit the JCVI’s expertise in genomic sequencing and synthetic genomes, supported by SGI’s IP and business know-how. The partnership with Novartis aims to develop synthetically constructed seed viruses that would be ready to go into production as soon as the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies relevant flu strains for the year. Novartis points out that vaccine companies currently rely on WHO to identify and distribute live reference viruses for generating seasonal or pandemic vaccines. Access to a bank of synthetic seed viruses could reduce vaccine production time by up to two months, the firm claims. “It has the potential to safely reduce the time needed to develop new vaccines and improve pre-pandemic preparedness,” states Rino Rappuoli, head of research for Novartines Vaccines and Diagnostics. Novartis has been working with JCVI over the last decade to apply the institute’s research on viral gene sequencing for vaccine development.
SGI has exclusive access to new inventions and discoveries in synthetic genomics research developed by the JCVI under a sponsored research agreement between both organizations. The firm also sponsors fundamental research at the JCVI. In May this year JCVI reported the successful construction of the first self-replicating Mycoplasma mycoides bacterial cell containing a computer-designed synthetic genome that had been constructed in the laboratory.
The following month a report by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center estimated that the U.S. government has spent around $430 million on research related to synthetic biology since 2005, with the DOE funding a majority of the research. In comparison, the analysis indicated that the European Union and three individual European countries, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Germany, have spent approximately $160 million during that same period.
Public understanding of and opinion on the development and use of synthetic biology is mixed. Just last month a 1,000-person survey by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Synthetic Biology Project found that about two-thirds of Americans were in favor of allowing synthetic biology research to continue as long as there was a focus on uncovering its possible effects on humans and the environment. One-third of respondents said synthetic biology research should be banned until its implications and risks were better understood. Just over half of all those questioned believed further research should be regulated by federal government.
Perhaps understandably, the public felt significantly more positive about using synthetic biology to expedite the creation of a flu vaccine than for, say, speeding livestock growth. 59% of respondents viewed synthetic biology for flu vaccine development positively, while 74% viewed it as a negative development for applications in livestock.