Discovering Factories of Invention
January 7, 2021. As a former Congressional staffer early in my career, I am particularly shocked by the invasion of the U.S. Capitol and loss of life we saw yesterday. In earlier blogs I have discussed the importance of finding “common ground” and treating each other with civility. This is a serious wound to our democracy that will take a concerted effort to repair. To move forward, I continue to address issues of importance to the nation. Here relying on science to help tame critical problems like Covid-19 here and around the globe.
Thanks to Thomas Edison’s initial electrical genius our neighborhoods and homes twinkled with electric red, green, blue and white bulbs for the holidays, providing a brief respite from the Pandemic. Putting the light bulb within financial reach of everyone was just one of Edison’s inventions. Over a lifetime he received 2,332 patents in 34 countries.
Yet none of Edison’s 19th century inventions solved the puzzles we’re grappling with in the 21st century—a virus that has killed over 330,000 Americans, flooding ICUs and leaving millions with lasting heart, lung, and brain traumas growing out of COVID-19.
Menlo Park “Factory”
Can today’s researchers glean anything from Edison’s “Factory of Innovation”? How does his body of work compare with modern scientific discovery? Having the mind of a genius aided his cause, but his wisdom also led him to assemble a group of well-trained, top-drawer scientists in Menlo Park, outside Newark, NJ. Edison realized he needed a village of scientists to be productive and prolific. Edison hired 25 young scientists from colleges and tech schools to carry out his experiments—several at a time. They toiled for “workmen’s wages,” but as one said: “The privilege which I had being with this great man for six years was the greatest inspiration of my life.” Others did privately complain about the 55-hour week, six-days-a-week that could expand into overnight stints when an experiment demanded it.
Many of those scientists, who Edison called “Muckers,” began at New Jersey’s Menlo Park or the West Orange lab complex and went on to continue working with him for great chunks of their lives. The cadre grew to 200, developing specialization along the way, working on batteries, the telegraph or phonograph, a prototype of an electric railway, the motion picture cylinder, and an electrographic vote recorder.
Their efforts took communication and entertainment to levels never anticipated. While Edison lived into the 20th century (1931), he was a man of a wired world. Heck, he made the wires possible that sped the 19th century far forward into the digital, wireless world we embody today. A new raft of scientists and inventive dreamers followed him to bridge the gap between.
Areas of Discovery 2020
The 21st century scientists are branching well beyond “wires” or define them more as “branches” on DNA trees and cultured viruses in laboratories filled with computerized test tubes and syringes and a raft of supplies unfamiliar to Edison. He built his initial 25 X 100 laboratory filled with every apparatus, including a 10-horsepower engine, and chemicals on every shelf for 19th century “scientific research.” He promised to produce a minor invention every ten days and a “big thing” every six months.
Such promises are nonsensical in today’s world of modern biological research, COVID-19 earnest push behind the 21st century work at biotech firms like AbCellera, Abbott, OxGene TESSA, Codex DNA, GIGAGen, 10X Genomics, and countless others. All those mentioned have been selected to be among the Top 10 Innovations of 2020, reported in The Scientist.
While my knowledge of their work can barely meet the task of describing it, I will rely on The Scientist, a publication “exploring life, inspiring innovation,” that selected esteemed judges, who determined the awaredees. As beings alive in this century, we should be aware of the achievements and the trials of these tireless workers.
Are these “factories of invention”? Since necessity is the mother of invention, in 2020-21 the science of biology has become one essential tool to address the international concern with COVID-19. So rather than look to electricity and electronics, two areas of burgeoning success beginning in the 18th century, attention now turns to laboratory technologies.
Companies and laboratories focused on pharmaceuticals, genetics, and building the tools they need to discover COVID vaccines are the winners. Scientists, who focus their efforts on medicines and the lengthy search for cures, are on the front lines—some of them just as hidden from the public as the “muckers.” Here are a few winners among the Top 10 scientific discoveries in 2020 in core laboratory technologies: single-cell proteome (a system’s collection of protein) analyzer and a desktop gene synthesizer and Pandemic-focused products.
AbCellera Celium TM The Scientist reported in late March this biotech firm hosted a call with 40 researchers to review the data they’d collected on potential antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. The company deciphered the genetic sequences encoding hundreds of antibodies that might treat COVID-19. They fed their results into Celium, a data visualization tool that intersects more than a million high-quality data points to those antibodies to reveal which ones might work best in a potential therapy. This process helped them focus on the LY-CoV555 antibody, which later entered into clinical trials as a potential treatment, according to Maia Smith, lead of data visualization at Celium, “I think that kind of says it all.”
Fernando Cortea, a protein engineer at Kodiak Sciences in Palo Alto, who partners with AbCellera to identify antibodies to treat retinal diseases, says the company’s package of microfluidics, single-cell analysis, and the data visualization tool “streamlines the process of antibody discovery in a user-friendly manner.” One of the contest judges praised the “power of the Celium platform as being at the intersection of biology and AI to make new antibody discoveries at a blazing speed.”
Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 Test For six years, Abbott has helped physicians detect influenza A and B. strep, respiratory syncyt virus (RSV) and more recently SARS-CoV-2, in less than 15 minutes. The toaster-sized device heats samples in an acidic solution that cracks open the viruses, exposing their RNA. This was one of the first tests accessible to the US public in the COVID crisis and its quick response “is critical to stopping viral spread,” according to Normal Moore, Abbott’s director of scientific affairs for infectious diseases. He explained “you’re most infectious early on—and we don’t have that result in that timely fashion, what does it help if a molecular test comes back two weeks later?” In January 2020, there were more than 23,000 ID NOW machines in use in the US, mainly in urgent care clinics and pharmacies. The ID NOW platform costs $4,500 and each COVID-19 test costs $40.
Contest Judge Charmion Cruickshank-Quinn, a scientist at Agilent Technologies, pointed to the ease of the throat or nasal tests using the mobile platform in the field at drive-thru testing locations.
BioLegend TotalSeq TM Human Universal Cocktail v1.0 allows researchers to analyze blood samples from nearly 300 patients who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. “I actually know a lot of colleagues across the United States and Europe that have used this same panel to analyze their COVID cohorts. . .which means we’ll be able to combine all of our data and compare. And that’s incredible.” It also builds an international online laboratory, expanding the size and speed of virus investigations and testing.
Judge Robert Meagher, Sandia National Laboratories, technical staff: “This is a really nice merging of next-gen sequencing as a digital readout for sequence barcodes and single-cell barcoding technology to enable single-cell quantitative proteomics (the entire set of proteins produced by an organism).”
Codex DNA BioXp TM 3250 System released in August 2020 , following a 2014 platform for on-demand DNA assembly and amplification, allowing researchers to synthesize genes and genomes faster than ever before to accelerate the development of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments, according to Peter Duncan, director of produce management at Codex DNA. The equipment can be used on cancer cells or a variety of infectious agents, including SARS-CoV-2.
Prior to this platform, researchers needed to send out samples to be processed, taking weeks or months. This system sequences up to 7,000 base pairs in length can be assembled in a matter of days with the push of a button. Mark Tornetta, Biologics Discovery at Tavotek Biotherapeutics told The Scientist: “All of these methods (that are on the run)on the BioXP save us time and cost to perform.”
Factories of Invention, where researchers work to answer our pressing needs, drawing together science talent and the latest tools to serve society—whether it’s the 18th century or the 21st. To learn more about the other outstanding innovations in 2021, check out the bottom URL below.
Read for yourself about the other 2020 Top 10 Innovations: