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Biotech’s Next Big Catalyst Could Be Synthetic DNA

From Jon Markman: It really is a brave new world. Not long ago, a group of prominent scientists announced plans for a project to create synthetic human DNA from scratch.

That seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day. If you don’t like your lover, one day you might just be able to design a new one.

The project will be led by synthetic biologists Jef Boeke, of the Langone Medical Center at New York University, and George Church, of Harvard Medical School. And it will take up where the previous project to read the human genome ended.

In 2003, the Human Genome Project (HGP) was completed. It was supposed to open the door to countless new treatments and cures for illnesses that had plagued humans for centuries. It didn’t quite work out that way. It seems understanding the relationship between genes and illness is more complex than scientists originally thought.

The Human Genome Project-write (HGP-write), as the name implies, will attempt to synthetically write human DNA code. The idea is that writing and understanding genetic code made from scratch will help scientists learn more about those complex gene relationships.

And while creating the building blocks for human life in a lab may seem like science fiction, there is some precedent.

In 2010, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute created bacteria controlled by a synthetic genome, effectively turning code back into life. HGP-write will be like that experiment, only on a much bigger scale.

Writing DNA is tedious and expensive work. It involves precisely manipulating tiny amounts of chemicals and a DNA molecule.

These chemicals are sugary building blocks designated A, T, C and G and they must be added in the correct amounts and the proper order hundreds of times to change the structure of DNA.

Boeke and Church believe completing HGP-write will shrink development costs for DNA fabrication by a factor of one thousand. If true, that could actually lead to all of the revolutionary treatments promised by the original Human Genome Project. Yet, pesky ethical questions remain.

These are heightened by Church’s own colorful and controversial history. In his 2012 book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, he wrote about a world where humans with genomes made in the lab become immune to all viruses. According to Church this could be done simply by removing the host material from our genes that viruses need to replicate. And that’s just a start. He’s been vocal about his efforts to resurrect the wooly mammoth now that perfectly preserved DNA material from the prehistoric beast has been recovered. Church is also using CRISPR, a gene editing tool he helped develop, to alter pig genes so that their organs can be transplanted into humans. As for humans, he’s not shy about his cradle-to-grave outlook.

He’s aggressively in favor of gene editing to avoid potential birth defects and he’s working with gene therapies to reverse the aging process. It doesn’t help that when he’s pressed about ethics, he demurs to comparisons to the industrial revolution. This type of talk often lands scientists in hot water. And Church has been cooked so many times that he should have developed a rubbery exterior by now. He’ll need it.

It should take $100 million and ten years to create the human genome from scratch. If the project is successful, scientists say they’ll restrict potential use cases to the petri dish to avoid ethical considerations. That’s not exactly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but it is one giant step closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

As is often the case in biotech, the most reliable investment for investors in this space will be the proverbial picks and shovels: The makers of lab equipment and disposables, like Becton Dickinson and Co. (BDX), Teleflex Inc. (TFX) and Cantel Medical Corp. (CMD).

Of course, the members of my services – Tech Trend Trader – receive both more numerous stock recommendations and more detailed analyses of the companies behind them.

The iShares NASDAQ Biotechnology Index ETF (NASDAQ:IBB) rose $0.50 (+0.17%) in premarket trading Tuesday. Year-to-date, IBB has gained 8.07%, versus a 4.10% rise in the benchmark S&P 500 index during the same period.

IBB currently has an ETF Daily News SMART Grade of A (Strong Buy), and is ranked #2 of 36 ETFs in the Health & Biotech ETFs category.

This article is brought to you courtesy of Money And Markets.

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