Andrew Hessel and His Creation
By Caitlin Gowdy, 11-02-2018
Driving through the rolling hills of Northern California one hazy Friday morning, I turned the corner of a hidden suburb to find a cozy house nestled between redwood trees and open horse fields. I was greeted by my friend, Andrew Hessel, and his adorable ten month old son who became an active participant in our later conversation. We gathered around the dining table, enjoying the warmth of the fireplace, and drank coffee together in the quiet AM.
Courtesy: Andrew Hessel
Synthetic biology is the application of interdisciplinary methods to redesign biological mechanisms and organisms. In short, synthetic biologists reprogram life.
A leading figure in this realm is Andrew, a distinguished researcher in biotechnology. After working at Autodesk Life Sciences for six years, he has moved on to start his own company, Humane Genomics. The purpose of this company is to pursue an AI-based platform that generates a personalized cancer treatment based on each patient’s own genome. Each treatment uses viruses to specifically target cancer cells, while leaving the patient’s healthy cells in peace. They are prototyping the system with dog cancers, and have received support for this work from Deloitte.
But why viruses? Viruses are specialized to deliver their genetic code, both DNA and RNA, to living cells. The viral genome uses the cells they infect as factories. This can make the cell or the organism sick. But viruses can also be harnessed or redesigned to be good. By creating designer viruses that are programmed to distinguish cancer cells from healthy cells, and then to instruct those cancer cells to self destruct, synthetic biologists can turn viruses into powerful, low-cost cancer treatments. Effectively, cancer cells catch the flu and die. And because the viruses are made from scratch, they can be personalized, fine-tuned for just a single cancer.
Andrew believes that every molecule existing in the universe serves a unique purpose - nothing is random. Each and every organism is unique, down to their very program, their DNA. Yes, their program. By definition, a computer is something that processes information. Cells process information, too, except they compute with molecules and their software is comprised of DNA or RNA base pairs, not electronic 1’s and 0’s, or bits.
The ability to make synthetic viruses could lead to a human “App Store”. Imagine the human body as an iPhone. It comes into existence with a basic operating system, your DNA, with preloaded applications that allow it to perform its base functions. These would be your ability to eat and digest, to sleep, to breathe, etc. But there’s so much more that the body is capable of. Each new skill - the ability to run quickly, or to ski, or to play the piano - is another app that has been installed. But unlike an iPhone, apps for the human body cannot be loaded as easily as getting them from the Apple Store. Some require practice, some require school. But Andrew believes that, in the future, viruses may allow repairs to be made to the human body, or for new capabilities and skills to be added. Need to learn a new language? Take a virus to activate the brain’s language center. Want night vision? Modify the retinal cells of the eye. But this is speculation. Right now, Humane Genomics, is working on the “killer app” for viruses, which is just killing the cancer cells that shouldn’t be there and are killing us.
Courtesy: Caitlin Gowdy
As the field of synthetic biology rapidly evolves, the ability to redesign how organisms, both simple and complex, live stronger, healthier, and better lives will only improve. Some may worry that this will lead to malicious intent. Andrew believes these concerns are valid and need to be addressed, but is confident that, like computer technologies, this technology will deliver far more benefits than harm to humanity.
Apart from being a talented researcher, Andrew has dedicated his life to the teaching of synthetic biologists all over the world. With little more than his trusty backpack, Andrew travels the globe to speak at events, lead guest lectures, and inspire thousands with his unique view on life, and how to reprogram it. Andrew is truly an inspiration, and on course to change healthcare as we know it.