An Interview with Ellen Jorgensen, President of Biotech without Borders
by Ray Fontaine
Biotech Without Borders is a bioengineering maker space located in Downtown Brooklyn New York. It is unique in that it is the first community lab to open a Biosafety Level 2 (BSL2) lab facility to the public. This makes it possible to do projects with samples that have to handled specially, such as human cells and environmental samples. Since BSL2 technically provides the ability to work with viruses, this opens the lab up to a higher level of scrutiny from the scientific community. However, Biotech without Borders has a firm policy controlling access, and will not allow work with pathogens.
Clever Tech sat down with Ellen Jorgensen, President of Biotech Without Borders, to learn more about their efforts to make bio-entrepreneurship more accessible and to educate underrepresented demographics in the biotech field. Biotech Without Borders differs from its neighbor Genspace (an organization which Jorgensen cofounded and directed from 2010-2017) mainly in its focus on more rigorous applications of Molecular Biology, Synthetic Biology, and Genetic Engineering instead of Genspace’s BioART-influenced scope.
1. What resources does Biotech Without Borders offer? Why did you start the organization?
Biotech without Borders is a nonprofit organization that curates a community in the sciences. We maintain a fully-equipped molecular biology lab open to the public for projects. We advocate for members by sourcing equipment, supplies, and scientific collaborators to help with a project. Interested individuals can find free events, lectures on subjects like synthetic biology and genome editing, and open lab nights listed on our website.
I am fascinated by how far the general public can come in bio-entrepreneurship.
People have interesting ideas they might want to try and prototype, and they don’t have the credentials or money to get into a biotech facility at a large institution. Biotech Without Borders’ facilities empower individuals to prototype and develop a proof of concept.
2. Biotech Without Borders is a nonprofit biological prototyping facility (BIO FAB LAB), providing citizens access to biotechnology education and lab space. Why is supporting bioliteracy in underserved communities so important?
It’s dangerous to not have full participation in biotechnology from all sectors. We have to make all populations welcome by removing the barriers to science education. Different socioeconomic groups have different questions, issues, and solutions.
Look at clinical trials for medicines. At one time, there were virtually no clinical trials that focused on women. Women are inherently messier than men to work with. They cycle. They have children. The predominantly male scientists decided to just do clinical trials on men and solve that problem.
As science became more diverse and women went into science, people started to question that way of testing medicines. Turns out that a lot of medicines work differently and in some cases may not be as effective on women as on men. Now, in an application to the FDA if you are going to limit the treatment population in your testing, you have to defend that.
We are talking about major medications like HEART Medication not being tested on women! The old practice of only testing medicines on Caucasian males created effects that still resonate today.
So many hardworking teachers have no resources and sometimes no science budgets. Making classes and lab space available to the general public is great. Making biotech accessible to underserved and underrepresented demographics in the sciences is even better. A lot of underserved youth have a burning desire to help their community and environment. I want more of those minds working to solve big global problems!
3. Ellen Jorgensen. Former director of GenSpace, launched Biotech Without Borders this year, 2017. How is Biotech without Borders making social and economic impact in the community, and what are the plans for the future?
We are helping Brooklyn Schools. Biotech Without Borders has a program called Hack the Helix where teachers can use our lab as a resource. We’ve gotten companies to donate supplies. We are in the pilot stage now with seven high school science teachers who come to the lab regularly to stage lessons, get advice on developing new lessons in molecular biology, and exchange best practices. The teachers in the Hack the Helix program are all Math For America Master Teachers. I met them when I taught a professional development class for Math for America, a kindred program.
Biotech without Borders is also a Bionet node. Bionet provides DNA at cost as a resource to facilitate education and innovation. This is an effort by Stanford University professor Drew Endy to democratize biotech. He has a grant to make and distribute 10,000 genes to labs across the country that will act as “nodes,”distributing and curating the DNA for all to use. I like to think of it like a DNA vending machine. People can use these DNA “parts” to use in education or to do projects.
Moreover, I want to find partners in countries that are not represented in the biotech field. Biotech Without Borders can help foster the capacity to build the infrastructure within those countries to commit to science. These countries don’t just need someone to dump a bunch of equipment and instructions, but require the support to bring modified foods to their country successfully, potentially growing more robust crops and and allowing farmers to take more control of their crops.
4. If Mother Nature is the ultimate bioterrorist, what are humans? What guiding principles do you follow as a genetic scientist and public educator?
Humans are very inferior bioterrorists- if you think about how many species of microbes there are in the world, and how few are actually harmful to humans, you can understand how hard it it to create a perfect pathogen. The technology of genetic engineering is inherently neither good nor evil; it’s just a technology. People equate agricultural biotech with aggressive business practices of large companies like Monsanto and don’t trust reassurances that GMO food is safe to eat. But there is absolutely no credible data that GMOs are harmful to eat and no scientific reason why they should be. And by the way, manufacturers and sellers of organic food are just as interested in making money as companies that make GMO foods. The anti-GMO movement has slowed down progress in engineering plants to combat diseases and pests and to make crops more nutritious and resistant to droughts caused by global warming.
On the other hand, I don’t think we fully understand the effect on the environment. But the effects can be looked at case-by-case, and by not acting we may be doing more harm than by going forward. We can’t turn back the clock on technology. The best we can do is to steer everything in a direction that is useful and peaceful.
I was very affected by a United Nations conference I was asked to speak at that focused on how science and technology could help the world achieve what the UN calls the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s an effort to solve some large problems like food security and protection of the environment by 2030- genetic engineering will be part of the solution.
5. What biotech development are you most excited about?
I think we are at a point in history where a lot of technologies (synthetic biology, AI, CRISPR, cloud computing, cell imaging etc.) are all coming together. We are already seeing advances in cancer treatment using immunotherapy where we are even glimpsing at possible cures.
Biomaterials are another fast-moving field. We’ve seen companies like Modern Meadow and Bolt Threads move into sustainable clothing, and companies like Ginkgo Biotech are moving the production of flavors and fragrances away from harvesting rare plants and into fermentation vats.
6. CRISPR genome editing has enabled the development of biomed technologies like immunotherapies that can be used to battle cancer. Can/How might this technology help treat or prevent autoimmune diseases, degenerative diseases, etc in the future?
Any disease that has a genetic component is a target for CRISPR. For example, they are already testing it in mouse models of Huntington's Disease and muscular dystrophy. And the form of CRISPR that edits genomes is only one type of CRISPR. There are others that can be used in diagnostics and basic research. We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.