Jean Peccoud: Open Insulin Keeps the Nation Safe

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The following is a guest post by Jean Peccoud, Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, Colorado State University. Jean hosted Anthony’s talk at CSU in September of 2016, and remains engaged in the broader movement to make open insulin. Jean writes:

In 2008, I received an invitation to attend a meeting organized by the FBI. My first reaction was “Oh my gosh! What did I do to be on the FBI watch list?”. After a couple of days, I had recouped. At that point, I was thinking that going to San Francisco from Virginia was expensive and that I should politely decline. Eventually, I came to my senses and decided that I should go.

This meeting was a gathering of government personnel, industry representatives, and academics. The purpose of the event was to create bridges. It initiated a dialogue between stakeholders sharing a mutual interest in keeping synthetic biology safe. It was an eye-opening experience because (let’s be honest) it was the first time that I was giving any thought to security. It was also the first time I met law enforcement professionals in the context of my academic activities. The activities we did together during the day helped me understand their perspective on issues of security in the life science. In particular, I was surprised by their focus on prevention and outreach. I came home with the impression that keeping the nation safe is a goal that we can only achieve as a community. It is not the exclusive responsibility of the government. It is our collective responsibility.

As a result, I assembled an iGEM team to characterize the guidance on synthetic DNA recently published by the Government. After the competition was over, the students were invited by the FBI to brief representatives from government agencies who participated in the effort to prepare the guidance. Nature Biotechnology published the results of their effort.

Over the last two years, we have hosted FBI personnel in my group for a week-long training. The goal of this hands-on program is to provide the trainees with an opportunity to practice some of the technologies used in synthetic biology. This personal experience helps them understand their security implications better than any lecture or report can. In addition to the experimental work, the syllabus includes a number of lectures and site visits.

This year, the project was inspired by the Open Insulin project. The trainees assembled a proinsulin expression cassette out of oligonucleotides. They put together a functional plasmid using Gibson assembly. They tested the plasmid using the TxTl cell-free expression system. They also transformed E.coli cells with the proinsulin expressing plasmids. After extracting the proteins, they were able to detect insulin by Western blot.

I used this project for the training because it helps understand the biomanufacturing processes by the biotechnology industry. It also illustrates the aspirations of the DIYBio community. I explained that the Open Insulin project and the movement it represents, remind me of Jobs and Wozniak developing the Apple computer in a world where access to computing resources was a privilege reserved for corporate and government users.

At the end of the week, we spent an afternoon at the Denver Biolabs. This visit was a great success as it led to a lively exchange between the government and lab members. Thinking out loud as a group, we considered hypothetical scenarios that had not crossed our minds before. If any of them materializes some day, we are certainly better prepared to recognize the situation than if we had not made an effort to meet and have this conversation.

Unbeknownst to members of Open Insulin project, this initiative is helping keep the nation safe and preserve the freedom to experiment and imagine a future in which access to drugs may be as different from the current system as our mobile computing devices are from the computing systems of the 60s.