The current Ebola epidemic is a chance for DIY bio to shine. So, we would like to set a challenge before the public.
I believe the current Ebola epidemic is a chance for DIY bio to shine. A vaccine is not yet available, anti-Ebola drugs are experimental, expensive and take months to produce, and delivery to affected areas is logistically difficult. Meanwhile, the number of victims is increasing exponentially. With a 24-day doubling period and 10,000 victims right now, hundreds of millions will be infected in a bit over a year unless something is done. But fighting Ebola with digital fabrication may be possible.
One of the experimental treatments that shows promise is transfusion of blood plasma from survivors. Since there is a 24-day incubation period, this leaves plenty of time to transfuse blood from survivors to the next set of victims. This is a low-tech solution, and would be perfect for the DIY Bio movement. There are several digitally fabricable centrifuges usable for blood plasma separation, from the most basic (an eggbeater with surgical tubing) to the slightly more advanced (a 3D printed dremel head) to quite advanced and robust. A toolkit would be built around this centrifuge, with open source and DIY-fabricable components supporting, at the very least, the following functions: sterilization, blood draw, blood typing and testing for common blood-borne diseases, and transfusion. The toolkit should be built in such a way that it can run on locally available power, preferably from car and motorcycle batteries.
The hopes and difficulties ahead for DIY Bio
In the emerging DIY bio movement, the maker community is taking its DIY approach to biological experimentation and biotech. The idea is that you can apply the open-source hardware toolbox and philosophy to creating biotech tools and methods at a low cost and putting them in the hands of the wider public. The maker movement uses accessible tech to bring back the days when tinkerers like Philo Farnsworth were creating high-tech at home. Likewise, DIY bio promises to put biotech innovation at the disposal of chemists, biologists and hackers who don’t have access to multimillion dollar labs at universities and biotech companies.
With low-cost polymerase chain reaction (PCR) allowing DNA amplification in your garage, can it be long before hackers are solving society’s problems with gene-splicing done on the cheap? Scientists are already using open source digital fabrication: What happens when everyone gets their hands on this tech?
But that’s the hype. The reality is that DIY bio has had lots of false starts and limitations. Regular biotech is a risky business, with massive startup failure rates, a decade until returns start coming in if the company’s success, huge regulatory burdens and massive capital costs.
DIY bio has the same pains, only more so. Aaron Saenz at SingularityHub says it best: “I should perform a big reality check here, however, and point out how basic these lab instruments really are. We’ve had the majority of these technologies for decades. Putting them in the hands of DIY biologists isn’t going to turn them into MIT. Also, most of these projects are still in the beginning phase of their development. Selling a few dozen kits isn’t going to reshape an industry.” So, the movement hasn’t even gotten to the point where it can start feeling the pains dragging down the conventional biotech companies.
If DIY Bio is to overcome these challenges, it needs to find a killer app, and somewhere that its toolkit, basic as it is, can be used rapidly to help solve a large problem and create value. This would buy it the breathing room, credibility and investment needed to develop past its bottlenecks (lack of public interest, susceptibility to overregulation, high cost of substrates, etc.)
Join the challenge!
So, we would like to set this challenge before the public. Fighting Ebola with digital fabrication would be a huge benefit for mankind, and could position DIY bio to overcome the massive obstacles in its path, allowing it to deliver value in other areas. We will help in any way we can, including posting your designs and ideas and getting free/heavily discounted fabrication and engineering services from our partners!
Please share your comments, feedback and ideas. To send designs and private correspondence, or guest posts, please contact me at [email protected]
The views expressed are of the author.
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This post was originally published on SwarmBuild‘s blog.