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DIY bio challenge: Fighting Ebola with open source digital fabrication
Posted by 3DP4E

By Boris Kogan | Inside 3DP

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, how long will it be 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?

Beyond the hype

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 huge regulatory burden 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 and when it gets to that point, it will have to deal with media hysteria. An insane amount of hype was created over the possibility of someone using a 3D printer to create a barely functional zip gun (disregarding the fact that you’d have better results creating a barrel and chamber by drilling holes into a block of wood, spending less money and time to get a better weapon.) Some poor guy in Japan just got locked up for doing just that. Imagine how much hysteria will be created if, during a slow news cycle, CNN decides to run a feature on the potential use of DIY bio tools for bioterrorism. After all, what could Aafia Siddiqui have done with a viable DIY bio toolset? Uh-oh, here comes the regulatory burden.

If DIY Bio is to overcome these challenges, it needs to find a killer app. Somewhere 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 hysteria, over regulation, high cost of substrates, etc.)

DIY bio’s opportunity to shine

I suggest that 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, transfusion. The toolkit should be built in such a way as to be run on locally available power, preferably from car and motorcycle batteries.

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 any way we can, including posting your designs and ideas and getting free/heavily discounted fabrication and engineering services from our partners!


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