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Insight & Intelligence™ : Jul 16, 2012

Do-It-Yourself Biotech Labs

As interest in DIY facilities surges, supporters say safety concerns are overblown.
  • Alex Philippidis

When BioCurious opened its community laboratory in Sunnyvale, CA, last year, co-founder and chief architect Raymond McCauley only half-joked, “We said we weren’t going to seek formal commercial ties with anybody or a sponsorship till we‘d been open for a year, and no one had been killed or arrested.”

Not only have these tragedies been averted, thankfully, but BioCurious hasn’t had to go far to attract sponsors and commercial users. ImmunePath CEO John Schloendorn, Ph.D., last year donated a quantitative PCR machine for gene analysis. Biotech Equipment Sales, which donated a biosafety hood, is working with BioCurious to find and fix equipment. The Thiel Foundation, created by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, gave an undisclosed grant. And with Assay Depot, the community lab sponsored an Open Science Challenge where top two winners won $5,000 each, plus a year’s membership.

Genetic screening company Counsyl is donating money and time in exchange for hanging recruiting posters, while several bioentrepreneurs and their startups use the facility to carry out research. Most want to stay anonymous, McCauley cautions, though Evolutionary Solutions, for example, is developing a proof-of-concept, to be followed by a prototype, for providing ultra-inexpensive DNA synthesis.

BioCurious opened its 2,600-square-foot facility in May 2011, and successfully used crowdfunding website Kickstarter to surpass by more than $5,000 their goal of raising $30,000. That money helped BioCurious fund a basic starter synthetic biology lab, provide a security deposit on a warehouse, cover liability insurance for lab users, and get permits for biohazardous waste handling—the major regulatory obstacle to public use of the lab.

BioCurious is one of several community labs that have opened over the past few years, as individual bioentrepreneurs have joined students and science enthusiasts—some returning to the industry from maternity leaves—in learning about, discussing, and sometimes even carrying out biotech research. In Brooklyn, NY, Genspace taught a resident vexed by neighbors who didn’t curb their dogs how to analyze DNA, then evaluated several feces samples from neighborhood dogs by tossing tennis balls at them, until the offending canine was identified.

“A lot of our functions, such as people coming back and brushing up on their skills, or assisting bio artists, we didn’t even think of when we started the community lab. We just thought of it as a space where people could pursue biotech maybe as a hobby or entrepreneurially,” Ellen D. Jorgensen, Ph.D., Genspace’s president and co-founder, told GEN.

One priority for community labs is minimizing the risks of nonprofessionals handling lab equipment. Genspace offers a “Biotechnology Crash Course” that includes letting students isolate their own DNA, amplify it for sequencing via PCR, and analyze it.

Dr. Jorgensen insists concerns about risky science are overblown. She notes Genspace is a Biosafety Level 1 lab, so it doesn’t work with pathogens; members, she adds, are very unlikely to create one accidentally. The lab’s educational programs, she adds, help reduce that fear.

“It’s harder to be scared of genetic engineering if you’ve done it side-by-side with your teenage daughter in a community lab,” said Dr. Jorgensen, a molecular biologist who previously managed projects involving biomarker discovery in human lung diseases related to tobacco use as director, biomarker discovery for Vector Research. “In a sense, we’re benefiting the entire biotech industry, because we are a very effective public relations arm for the industry.”

Getting laid off with a year’s severance gave Dr. Jorgensen the opportunity to join co-founders in creating Genspace, to combat public knee-jerk resistance to science: “It was the profound levels of ignorance that made me want to get involved in this as a professional scientist, and turn my back on what was a relatively decent career in the biotech industry.”

Genspace’s founders met via Google group, then face-to-face in a coffee shop before opening the world’s first self-contained community lab in December 2010. It took Genspace almost a year to find its space, which started out at 450 square feet and expanded last month to 600 square feet.

Genspace’s budget is small—first-year lab supplies came to $15,000, plus $12,000 for rent plus utilities—it can’t spend what larger institutions do. Genspace spent between $5,000 and $10,000 on equipment, thanks to Ebay bargains like its autoclave, and donations from sources that include Columbia University (electroporator) and Vector Research (two PCR machines, two microfuges and a benchtop fuge).

Dr. Jorgensen advises patience to those expecting a quick return-on-investment from Genspace: “You get people saying, ‘What breakthroughs have you made?’ Everyone is expecting something to happen out of one of these community labs that’s going to be a home run.”

Yet as community labs draw more support, donors and members will increasingly expect something in return. The labs’ best hope of satisfying such expectations will be keeping memberships engaged and growing, and stepping up fundraising so they can keep offering the equipment and know-how that users will need to make a career or hobby out of biotech.