What excites Andrew Ellington most in his University of Texas lab looks like a blob of white icing. It’s what he and post-doctoral researcher Peter Allen call “the bunny.”
And it is part bunny — at the cellular level. Ellington’s lab might some day create a bunny using rabbit DNA and 3-D printing technology, but that is not the goal. Animals can be cloned, said Ellington, a research professor in biochemistry, but “my criteria is to make a complex object,” like an artificial muscle.
You can probably see where this is going. Allen’s interest is creating human organs for transplant. Ellington, who says “that’s not my thing,” is the kind of boss who tells his researchers and students: Go for it.
“We do everything here,” Ellington said. His lab draws heavily on engineering and many other fields. “It’s the only way to do modern science,” he says. He will speak Thursday at UT, not on using 3-D technology but on making cheap tests so people can diagnose ailments at home. For Ellington, the testing and the 3-D printing are related.
Here’s an edited transcript of his comments:
What’s the bunny?
We are doing 3-D printing with smart glue, which is DNA, to make objects. These objects will be able to re-assemble into higher organized structures.
Think of your bones. They are the architecture that support your soft tissue. We are making a material architecture that will support the cells that will grow into the soft tissue. But we can control the organization of that architecture to build whatever we want. This is the’everything’ concept.
Is this mainly what you do?
Oh, no. We do biotechnology. This is mainly a biotechnology problem. And that’s what my folks do, they have no fear of boundaries.
What about diagnostic testing?
This is part of what I’ll talk about Thursday. The same molecular engineering tricks we use to make diagnostics are the same tricks we use to stick together 3-D objects.
We’re trying to make our own diagnostic test kits so they can be programmed with nucleic acids — with DNA — and we’re trying to get them to detect diseases of interest, like tuberculosis.
We believe a revolution in health care is upon us. We know we cannot shoulder the burdens of health care that are already on us. We have to take more responsibility for our care.
There are ethical questions. What if you learn you have a rare cancer and have a gun at home, but the result was a false positive?
You can get an AIDS test over the counter … If you make a bad decision about a test result and we have a support structure in place, whose fault is that? When I discuss (this), I think about how much we’ve bought into this medical hierarchy. We expect that only doctors can tell us what’s wrong with us.
I am always grateful that I work within a system that requires me to respect ethical constraints. My own version of ethics is extremely fluid. I think out of the box, but in terms of what I do, I toe the line absolutely.
What’s your goal?
We want to make a variety of consumer products, and we want to fund them from a variety of sources. Some of the funding comes from the Gates Foundation (about $1 million) because they want to put (TB tests) in resource-poor settings. If we can make it work under a tree in Africa, we can make it work in people’s lives here.
There are many home diagnostic tests. What new thing will you bring to the table that may be on the market in a couple of years?
You saw us learning to make our own tests, so in a sense, we are re-inventing the wheel. But if we can make it, then we can put our own unique molecules inside — like the ‘Intel Inside’. We make molecules that will help tests work better, have more amplification, will be more sensitive and detect more things. We hope this will be applicable to a wide variety of (tests).
The things we are most interested in are the things we can best detect. We go for diseases that are due to pathogens. The Gates folks would very much like us to make good tests for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis so we would know, at the point of care, whether a certain drug for tuberculosis was going to help.
So, it’s not only developing the test but determining what drug it’s sensitive to?
That’s right. We might both have colon cancer, but yours might be resistant to a drug treatment, while mine is not. Wouldn’t that be a good thing to know in advance?
Is this personalized medicine?
Yes, but I may think about it differently. What does personalized medicine mean in terms of personal responsibility? It’s one thing to say, ‘I am unique and a doctor is going to take care of me.’ It’s quite another thing to say, ‘I am unique and I am going to take care of myself.’
And you say the tests will be cheap?
Both for the Gates Foundation and the military (another funder), I am tasked with creating these so they cost virtually nothing.
How do you make money?
You make money not off the test, but the information that goes with it. In my warped view of the world, I am not looking to patent, I am not looking to protect. I am looking to distribute.
What else is on your list?
Fun. I would like to make tests that tell you something interesting about yourself. How much Neanderthal is in you? I am challenging the undergraduates to come up with fun tests people will want to take. If we can get people used to taking diagnostic tests, maybe they will take them for more serious things.
University of Texas Professor Andrew Ellington will give a free public lecture as part of the “Hot Science – Cool Talks” lecture series at UT. He will describe his lab’s biotechnology research on creating cheap home diagnostic tests that can be used here and in the developing world. The talk is at 7 p.m. at UT’s Student Activity Center. A science fair for the community will precede the lecture at 5:45 p.m., also at the student center.