Twist Bioscience manufactures DNA. In the world of synthetic biology—a booming field that seeks to grow, harvest, and ferment new sustainable goods—custom DNA is a key ingredient. Before the pandemic hit, Twist saw its stock price nearly triple since its IPO in 2018.
How is this pillar of the booming synthetic biology industry weathering the Covid-19 crisis? I spoke recently with two leaders at Twist to learn more.
An early pioneer of DNA synthesis, Emily Leproust co-founded Twist Bioscience and serves as its CEO and director. She grew up in France and completed a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Houston. Leproust’s parents were entrepreneurs—her uncle was the CEO of a large global import and export company. This inspired a young Leproust to think beyond her home country and to think about entrepreneurship from a global perspective.
Within Twist Bioscience, Aaron Sato serves as Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) at Twist Biopharma. He attended MIT, earning a Ph.D. in biological chemistry while studying the immune system. Sato worked at a number of drug discovery companies before joining Twist, and knows first-hand many of the bottlenecks in drug development.
Responding to the pandemic
Coronavirus has changed operations at the company in two ways, Leproust tells me.
First, while Twist is striving to maintain its pre-pandemic timelines for delivering its normal DNA products, it has also added new products to its lineup. These include new synthetic bits of RNA that can serve as controls for widely used diagnostic tests for Covid-19. “We’ve also launched respiratory controls which we believe will be critical for the upcoming flu season,” says Leproust.
Second, like most other companies, the pandemic forced Twist to keep most employees at home. “While this is challenging, our employees are dedicated and employ one of our guiding principles: grit.”
Antibodies to the rescue?
Twist’s main product—high quality, custom DNA—is being used in research labs around that are attempting to develop treatments for Covid-19. Antibodies, which many experts believe are among the most promising drug molecules, require custom DNA blueprints to be made.
There are many uses for antibodies during a pandemic, Sato tells me. As therapeutics, they can be used to either to treat infection directly or to mitigate some of its worst symptoms. But antibodies can also play a diagnostic role. “The right antibody pair could be included in a test to determine is a person has Covid-19 or not,” says Sato.
Such tests, if developed, would finally allow the U.S. to get its arms around the pandemic. Instead of waiting days for results, a rapid antibody test could deliver answers in minutes. The key, however, is creating the right antibodies at scale.
“Twist can make hundreds of thousands of different genes quickly. Basically, this allows us to make a lot of antibody clones as part of a workflow. And Twist can make unprecedented synthetic gene libraries, which are a fantastic tool for antibody discovery,” says Sato.
Through its commercial partnerships, Twist Biopharma, a division within Twist Bioscience, is making new antibodies with custom properties easier to create.
“From my perspective, [large-scale] DNA synthesis has always been a bottleneck —until I joined Twist,” says Sato. “Having built my workflow from the ground up based on Twist custom DNA products, the Twist Biopharma workflow is not DNA-constrained and is only limited by our capacity to test antibodies, which is a good problem to have.”
A comprehensive approach to the pandemic
Twist has put its antibody expertise to work in a comprehensive way, making several new research products available to the community. These include the tools needed to make diagnostic tests for Covid and coronavirus, reference standards that are important for making sure coronavirus tests are accurate, and tools for creating both vaccines and treatments.
For the coming flu season, Twist recently launched an all-in-one respiratory panel to help health workers differentiate among different respiratory diseases. This will be important for doctors to be able to distinguish between Covid-19 and other seasonal viruses. The panel can detect among SARS-CoV-2, several other coronaviruses, influenzas, rhinoviruses and respiratory syncytial virus.
Twist also is part of the $5 million XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing competition to accelerate the development of high-quality Covid-19 testing that is low cost, easy to use, and fast-turnaround, enabling frequent testing. Twist is a supporting partner alongside such notables as Google
And Twist has partnered with Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) to reduce the time it takes to go from outbreak to clinic-ready treatment in 60 days, versus the standard timeline of one to two years. VUMC has supplied Twist Biopharma with a large number of antibody sequences from a patient who had recovered from COVID-19. Twist uses its unique antibody workflow to identify which of these antibodies have the greatest potential as treatment to broadly protect other people who may become infected with the virus.
Firing on all cylinders
Despite the pandemic, Leproust remains a dedicated entrepreneur. And now more than ever, she says synthetic biology needs to deliver.
“We continue to serve our customers who are developing therapeutics, vaccines, and diagnostics through our primary products,” she tells me. “Our biopharma division has identified many antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 — both to the virus itself and to the receptor on human cells that grant its entry. We look forward to reporting progress on all fronts.”
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Ian Haydon for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about—including Twist Bioscience—are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.