COVID pandemic has changed the future of CRISPR and synthetic biology, says Rahul Dhanda, CEO of Sherlock Biosciences



IIt has been a transformative year for synthetic biology and for the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of our global health systems, but also validated the power of synthetic biology to rapidly develop critical diagnostics and mRNA vaccines. I spoke with Rahul Dhanda, CEO of Sherlock Biosciences, one of Crispr’s leading diagnostic companies.
[May 3], Sherlock announced a new partnership with LogicInk to leverage Sherlock’s Crispr platform to develop a portable COVID-19 test. What is the role of synthetic biology in the next stages of the pandemic and what could the next 12 months look like for industry and for Crispr-based diagnostics?
Rahul Dhanda, CEO of Sherlock Biosciences. Credit: Doug Levy

John Cumbers: It has been a year since Sherlock Biosciences received approval for the very first FDA clearance of a Crispr product. What impact has this had for Sherlock and synthetic biology?

Rahul Dhanda: I think this clearance was historic to both Sherlock and the synthetic biology community, as it represented a translation of these technologies into actual use in healthcare. The impact for Sherlock has been a vast acceleration of the platform.

For synthetic biology, I think there is that point where the pandemic gave us an opportunity and synthetic biology actually kept the promise it always had. In addition to mRNA therapeutics, the community has achieved the goals of rapid design and rapid response to rapid impact in a very cost effective manner. I feel like this last year has taken the industry from an idea to something that is very concretely recognized as a real solution.

JC: What is the 221b Foundation?

RD: The 221b Foundation is a non-profit organization created by Sherlock to place our CrisprCOVID IP in an open innovation model accessible to anyone who wishes to develop a Crispr diagnostic to fight the pandemic.

The goal is not just to make more solutions available for COVID testing and the fight against the pandemic. It is also taking those profits and reinvesting them in STEM education opportunities, especially for minorities, girls and women. The benefits we derive from it [the pandemic] are something we feel we need to give back.

A pandemic is not an opportunity to simply accumulate and reap the benefits. This is something that has sped up so many businesses and so many platforms, we felt the responsible thing was to take the economic benefits and put them back into the communities. We want to make sure that for the things that we can’t necessarily influence with our products, we can have more influence in terms of establishing health equity.

If we can increase the representation of those who are not always represented in STEM programs, we can also increase the way these disciplines view medicine and patients who do not always receive the best care or equal treatment.

JC: How does LogicInk fit into Sherlock’s overall vision?

RD: Sherlock’s vision is truly to ensure that individuals can take control of their health care. LogicInk has technology that can take advantage of Crispr in a way that potentially offers instrumentless, powerless, and similar self-administered testing to our INSPECTR platform. Our goal is not only to develop our technologies. Our goal is to use the advantages of our platforms and the knowledge we have gained to ensure that innovation across the industry continues to deliver the best solutions to patients around the world.

JC: As more and more strains of SARS-CoV-2 emerge and evolve, what can the synthetic biology industry do to respond quickly and reach underserved populations?

RD: Synthetic biology offers a very unique set of solutions to problems such as emerging and evolving strains. One of the most important things I think is that these tools – whether therapeutic or diagnostic – have proven to be very robust and quick in their response to new information. By taking the genetic sequences of these new strains, we can quickly develop diagnostic tests. Now that we have proven [synthetic biology techniques] with mRNA vaccines, we can also rapidly develop specific responses to emerging strains. This rapid response will not only be in the vaccine space, we will also see it in a therapeutic space.

I think half of the equation is how powerful these tools are to respond, design, and quickly build types of therapeutics and diagnostics. The other half is that the efficiencies we get from these new ways of doing things increase both scale and scope; the more we do this, the more economies of scale we will achieve. Even in the absence of economies of scale, these techniques have proven to be much more cost effective than traditional techniques. Not only do we build better solutions faster, but we also make them cheaper and more accessible.

JC: The past 12 months have been transformative for the synthetic biology industry in many ways. What were the next 12 months like for Sherlock?

RD: For Sherlock, it’s really taking these two platforms that we have – Crispr and our synthetic gene array and our cellless system, INSPECTR – and moving those platforms forward. We have learned a lot from the Crispr product that we have developed. We have granted nearly half a dozen licenses to [deliver new products] with partners to present our technology in various forums in various geographies. And we channeled what we learned into INSPECTR, which is a unique, instrument-free, power-free, self-administered test that delivers accurate lab results equivalent to any PCR.

What we plan to do over the next 12 months is to take these two platforms forward, but they are now focused on “product focus”. We are developing a basic COVID breath test with our INSPECTR platform. We anticipate that we will be expanding our menu as well as our products and doing so at a faster rate. The next 12 months for Sherlock are to transform what is an early stage product development company into a more mature, robust company that launches products more frequently.

JC: It was great talking with you, Rahul. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

RD: Thanks a lot, John, it’s been awesome.

John Cumbers is the Founder and CEO of SynBioBeta, the premier community of innovators, investors, engineers and thinkers who share a passion for using synthetic biology to build a better and more sustainable universe. He is an operational partner and investor in the Data Collective hard technologies investment fund, and a former bio-engineer at NASA. Follow him on twitter @johncumbers and @SynBioBeta

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes and has been reposted here with permission. Find Forbes on Twitter @Forbes


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