By Bridget Butler Millsaps | 3D Print
Weaving his way through a virtually invisible and widely unknown world of microscopic cells and futuristic technology, Autodesk’s genetic engineer Andrew Hessel is working to fight cancer on a new level: a personalized, affordable one, using 3D printed oncolytic viruses, which literally break cancer cells apart.
He makes fighting cancer sound very simple with the idea of viral engineering, which encompasses using software to design and make viruses — and 3D print them. Obviously, there is quite a body of research and work that goes into making that a reality.
Quite satisfied with the label of ‘biohacker,’ Hessel is a genetic engineer, a cell and genetic biologist, whose research is incomprehensible to most. “I think cancer is actually a fairly easy disease,” says Hessel.
With the revolution of 3D printing transforming technology and toppling the general mindset that has boxed us into many traditional methods, it has often been in the headlines recently, regarding the science of medicine and innovations that are truly helping people and saving lives in some cases. According to Andrew Hessel, of Autodesk, 3D printing may have the ability to change the world of cancer as we know it — and may be able to release us from the grasp and agenda of big pharma, toxic and agressive treatment, and perhaps even, eventually, cancer itself.
How is it that someone from Autodesk, a company best known for its CAD software, is involved in research for cancer treatment? While they are known as a leader in 3D design, Autodesk also created a science lab known as the Pier 39 facility. This lab, described by Hessel as “a lab to study labs,” is heavily invested in researching digital biology. Through his research there, Hessel has become convinced that he will be able to 3D print customized viruses which will attack the cancer cells specific to each individual. Hessel doesn’t just envision this happening affordably: he sees the patients as being treated for free — a vision that certainly could rock the world (and pharmaceuticals).
Hessel’s field of biohacking is growing. As a former researcher at pharmaceutical company Amgen, Hessel worked in genomics and bioanalysis for many years watching little progress happen. The question of how to change everything about how big pharma works (and doesn’t work) for us has been the question motivating Hessel. His goal is to bypass the long, arduous, expensive process of developing cancer drugs in a system where he points out “more money goes into the system and less drugs come out.”
Hessel points out that with a trillion cells comprising each human body, we certainly have a long journey in examining them. As the computers of today have become able to do more and more complex tasks, the study and manipulation of DNA has progressed enormously. Hessel points out he can take take data and turn it into DNA.
“Now I just have to swap out the design to start making cancer-fighting viruses,” he says. It is these viruses that Hessel is putting his hopes in. “Cancer cells are broken,” he explains. “These viruses, when they infect a cancer cell, hack it, take over it and then take over more cancer cells.”
He is making progress with his cancer hacking, with the first 3D printed virus produced at a cost of $1,000. He hopes to be 3D printing viruses for as a little as one dollar soon.
Even Bill Gates has been quoted as saying that if he were a teenager today he would pursue biology hacking. Hessler is inspiring. His enthusiasm is contagious as he shares his world with us—as well as his vision for charting new territory in fighting cancer with new ideas and new technology. One thing for sure is that we will be following his progress.
Hessel gave a TEDx talk in May 2014. The nearly 20-minute long talk provides a thorough background to his understanding of and approach to the fight against cancer. Check him out!
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