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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 12, 2010

Garage Biotech

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Posted by Derek

Freeman Dyson has written about his belief that molecular biology is becoming a field where even basement tinkerers can accomplish things. Whether we're ready for it or not, biohacking is on its way. The number of tools available (and the amount of surplus equipment that can be bought) have him imagining a "garage biotech" future, with all the potential, for good and for harm, that that entails.

Well, have a look at this garage, which is said to be somewhere in Silicon Valley. I don't have any reason to believe the photos are faked; you could certainly put your hands on this kind of equipment very easily in the Bay area. The rocky state of the biotech industry just makes things that much more available. From what I can see, that's a reasonably well-equipped lab. If they're doing cell culture, there needs to be some sort of incubator around, and presumably a -80 degree freezer, but we don't see the whole garage, do we? I have some questions about how they do their air handling and climate control (although that part's a bit easier in a California garage than it would be in a Boston one). There's also the issue of labware and disposables. An operation like this does tend to run through a goodly amount of plates, bottles, pipet tips and so on, but I suppose those are piled up on the surplus market as well.

But what are these folks doing? The blog author who visited the site says that they're "screening for anti-cancer compounds". And yes, it looks as if they could be doing that, but the limiting reagent here would be the compounds. Cells reproduce themselves - especially tumor lines - but finding compounds to screen, that must be hard when you're working where the Honda used to be parked. And the next question is, why? As anyone who's worked in oncology research knows, activity in a cultured cell line really doesn't mean all that much. It's a necessary first step, but only that. (And how many different cell lines could these people be running?)

The next question is, what do they do with an active compound when they find one? The next logical move is activity in an animal model, usually a xenograft. That's another necessary-but-nowhere-near-sufficient step, but I'm pretty sure that these folks don't have an animal facility in the basement, certainly not one capable of handling immunocompromised rodents. So put me down as impressed, but puzzled. The cancer-screening story doesn't make sense to me, but is it then a cover for something else? What?

If this post finds its way to the people involved, and they feel like expanding on what they're trying to accomplish, I'll do a follow-up. Until then, it's a mystery, and probably not the only one of its kind out there. For now, I'll let Dyson ask the questions that need to be asked, from that NYRB article linked above:

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.

Comments (42) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Biological News | Drug Assays | General Scientific News | Regulatory Affairs | Who Discovers and Why


1. SP on March 12, 2010 8:54 AM writes...

Actually, you want a cryotank for cell lines, which means regular deliveries of liquid N2 tanks. You also need CO2 tanks feeding the incubators.

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2. J-bone on March 12, 2010 8:59 AM writes...

Where is the fume hood venting to?

In the 2nd pic, it looks like the room connected to the garage is the kitchen, which is awesome considering they're growing cell lines right on the other side of the door.

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3. MattF on March 12, 2010 9:09 AM writes...

Possibly a low-capital 'skunk works'. Minimal management, no lawyers, no venture capitalists looking over your shoulder, no spies from the team across the hall...

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4. Anonymous on March 12, 2010 9:16 AM writes...

The obstacle isn't getting the equipment. It's the reagents and consumables that are so expensive for molecular biology. Unless you have money to burn, you are just going to tinker around in your garage.

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5. milkshake on March 12, 2010 9:24 AM writes...

one can fund the garage biology project by growing some artisan mushrooms...

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6. A Nonny Mouse on March 12, 2010 9:47 AM writes...

Biological hoods don't usually vent.

Also, the NCI will do advance testing of anti-tumour compounds, including xenografts (for free) if it also shows up well in their primary screens.

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7. blueplate on March 12, 2010 9:48 AM writes...

This is ridiculous. These knuckleheads are creating a safety situation for themselves and their neighbors to save a few bucks. The main start-up costs are equipment and supplies and they seem to have that covered. With the collapse of the CRE market space is pretty cheap-- so get out of teh garage and get a room.

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8. Anonymous on March 12, 2010 9:51 AM writes...

A garage may not be enough for a drug discovery business, but I can imagine a decent business where people send this guy tumor biopsies and he screens them against panels of approved cancer drugs and drug combos.

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9. Paul Riddell on March 12, 2010 9:53 AM writes...

I'm not really all that surprised by this. I've already had very fascinating run-ins with daylily enthusiasts, who've already gone mad with producing triploid and tetraploid cultivars that would be impossible without current technology. (The El Dorado of orchid culture is a true black orchid, but the El Dorado of daylilies is a blue one. By adding genes from other plants, this is definitely possible, but the serious daylily junkies prefer to work within the daylily genome only.) In my specialty, carnivorous plants, I haven't seen much of this yet, but I know several people who are just itching to start tinkering once they have the equipment and the time.

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10. anon the II on March 12, 2010 10:07 AM writes...

So here's what I'm guessing. This guy/gal worked at a small biotech and the money ran out completely or he was at a remote site of some big Pharma and the site was closed. He couldn't stand to see the equipment, that he spent so much time working with, go into a dumpster. It would be going into a dumpster because the biotech had nobody left to intelligently extract any value or the big pharma thought it was safer, from a liability standpoint, to toss it all. So, over the objections of his spouse, it was snuck (is that a word?) out when nobody was looking and stored in his garage. He's waiting for someone to hire him and buy reagents and he'll show up with all this stuff and be a hero.

I've seen it happen three times already. I had a liquid handling robot in my garage for a while till I loaned to a friend who runs an automation business. The chairs in my home office came from a local biotech where the landlord just threw open the doors and let people walk away with what they wanted. Saved him some cleanup costs.

So my guess is that there are a lot of garages like this in all the previously hot biotech areas.

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11. qetzal on March 12, 2010 10:30 AM writes...

@Anon #8:

I can imagine a decent business where people send this guy tumor biopsies and he screens them against panels of approved cancer drugs and drug combos.

I don't think so. Maybe there is a business opportunity in screening tumor biopsies; I don't know. But I'm pretty certain that neither patients nor oncologists nor insurance companies will pay someone to do it in their garage.

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12. DLIB on March 12, 2010 10:30 AM writes...

Well I live in the heart of silicon valley and know someone who set up a very modest version ( gel setup / spin / pipettes... ) and would use outside services for more complex work ups. He was on the cover of nature with his daughter. It's possible people with training might do this for personal reasons.

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13. Nick on March 12, 2010 10:31 AM writes...

It's interesting that one doesn't see more of this sort of thing in chemistry, where interesting work can be done using just glassware, a heat source, and the odd vacuum pump or the like. Of course, the resemblance of a garage synthesis lab to a meth lab would probably attract more than a bit of unwanted attention, and there's still the reagent problem.

Really, I'm not sure how the bio-types are going to overcome the problem of getting chemicals of higher quality than what can be purchased at a hardware store, either.

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14. bad wolf on March 12, 2010 10:42 AM writes...

Geez, that website already has an old article on the potential for synthesizing the (already published) Spanish Flu:

Put 2 and 2 together, people.

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15. dearieme on March 12, 2010 12:21 PM writes...

Golly, only on the 14th comment do we reach WMD.

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16. CMCguy on March 12, 2010 12:37 PM writes...

#13 I can tell you several current chemical suppliers literally did start out as Garage Labs. That was in 70s & 80s so doubtful would be tolerated today with heightened laws and regulations, partly because of so many clandestine drug labs ruined such enterprise potential. Of course some labs I have seen/worked in both academic and industry where no better than garages and even today on vendor audits can come away shaking my head and be happy not working there.

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17. Anonymous on March 12, 2010 12:44 PM writes...

From a serious cancer biologist-

Derek, your skepticism is misplaced. Cell lines are fine for discovering cancer cell killers, especially now that you can also culture hTERT-immortalized normal cells as negative controls.

Once you've got a hit and confirm it, could farm out the mouse studies to a contract organization for $$$. Xenograft studies just fine. Compounds (especially targeted ones - depending on what was the initial screen) could then be licensed to pipeline-poor pharma for big bucks, and there was no venture capital, no nothing.

That guy in the garage is SMART, and he might get rich.

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18. Spectrochimico on March 12, 2010 1:15 PM writes...

May I be the first one to say I'm jealous that lab is more modern than the one I use?

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19. bamhd on March 12, 2010 1:28 PM writes...

I see nothing surprising about this. This person in the garage is just following the trend of the drug discovery industry to dis-integrate and marginalize operating costs. Yes, if current trends continue DD could become a global, de-centralized cottage industry. OK, so maybe he's a little ahead of the curve (so were Wozniak and Jobs) but isn't this just the logical extension of the current trend? Other than the supplies and reagents costs, which will be significant but not fundamentally limiting, the potential upside on this garage operation is huge. Plus, no wasting time in meetings, budget approvals, blah blah blah. I like it.

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20. Bob in FWB on March 12, 2010 1:44 PM writes...

Dude in #9 is doing genetic experiments on carnivorous plants? Let's cross a rabbit with a Venus fly trap... Oh noooooo!

Seriously, though, I think "amateur" interest in this stuff is cool, considering that 100 years ago even the concept would have been preposterous.

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21. DrZZ on March 12, 2010 2:20 PM writes...

#6 - Not only will the NCI test your compound against 60 human tumor cell lines for free (well for the price of shipping the compound to NCI), but the inhibition data for ~45K compounds is freely available for download. Might be useful to look at that data before you embark on your own campaign.

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22. Fred on March 12, 2010 2:21 PM writes...

"I don't think so. Maybe there is a business opportunity in screening tumor biopsies; I don't know. But I'm pretty certain that neither patients nor oncologists nor insurance companies will pay"

Clearly, they also need a flashy web page.

"This person in the garage is just following the trend of the drug discovery industry to dis-integrate and marginalize operating costs. ...DD could become a global, de-centralized cottage industry."

Put in some cots and a kitchenette for Mexican chemists....

"Seriously, though, I think "amateur" interest in this stuff is cool, considering that 100 years ago even the concept would have been preposterous."

I've seen high school classes were they do genetic engineering; they stick plasmids in E. Coli. Astounding. Would have been literally impossible when I was in college (not too long ago!).

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23. SP on March 12, 2010 2:52 PM writes...

I don't know- if it's really that cheap and easy, don't you think companies would be doing it that way already? There's a reason people buy better models than the Spectramax 384 it looks like he has.
Where's the big cost savings? Real estate? Skirting of regulatory rules? I suspect it's because this guy also sees it as a hobby and is willing to work for peanuts, or even for nothing until (and if) he ever finds something interesting that could be sold. If pharma scientists were willing to work on commission- $1000 for every 5x improved analog!- the industry would be in great shape, but not many people will take a job like that, for good reason.

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24. Chrispy on March 12, 2010 3:08 PM writes...

Well, it's a little bigger than a garage, but check out this biotech startup in Seattle:
North Coast Biologics

Looking at this garage, it seems like there are a few too many robots for the scale of the operation. They must've been cheap!

And although doing real drug discovery might be hard to do in a garage, one could do quite nicely generating proteins for industry (in theory at least). I see more and more small shops which do this at every conference I go to, although I have to admit I'm not sure if it is because it is so profitable or if it is because so many skilled people have been laid off.

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25. Pat Pending on March 12, 2010 3:29 PM writes...

I have clients that work in spaces at downscale R and D parks that are just a little bit better then this garage lab. They order from supply houses and get deliveries of consumables just like big pharma and by their equipment second hand on the 'net. They are making enough money to pay the mortgage and keep the lights on so I think we may see more garage labs in the future. My concern would be waste disposal and wacko Federal and local law enforcement for garage labs.

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26. Jose on March 12, 2010 4:14 PM writes...

Pipette tips, plates, etc. can be disposed of in the normal trash after sterilization, which saves tons of money, correct? But what about reagents? Surely no shoestring op is going to pay through the ah, nose, for chemical waste disposal?

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27. Nick K on March 12, 2010 4:46 PM writes...

This is in the great tradition of American invention and creativity. Remember that Hewlett and Packard started in a rented garage in Palo Alto. In time some of these garage outfits will grow and overtake the (dying) Big Pharma dinosaurs.

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28. Skeptic on March 12, 2010 5:01 PM writes...

This is simply the response to the "Capital Efficiency, lets go virtual" cheap labour scam perpetuated by the parasitic international bankers in south manhattan. We should all become garage chemists. I bet we'll find all kinds of disturbing revelations in our food and water supply.

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29. Cloud on March 12, 2010 5:07 PM writes...

Pat Pending- I'm with you. What are they doing for waste disposal?

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30. Gillespie on March 12, 2010 5:28 PM writes...

I'm a cancer molecular biologist, doing lots of cell culture screening, and my first though on this was how are they dealing with the poor air system in a garage? Dust is going to be in everything! Probably growing more mold than cells...

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31. Hap on March 12, 2010 6:34 PM writes...

1) I can't imagine the neighbors being all that happy about someone running a synthesis lab out of their garage.

2) If a professor at a university with the means to dispose of his ether decided instead to fake its legal disposal to avoid paying for it (and take an axe to it), what are random people in their garage going to do?

3) How would you characterize your products? "Pure by TLC" ain't going to cut it, and if it's not a solid, mp won't either. You might be able to get NMR at the local U, but it won't be cheap either. Maybe Dr. LaClair and his band of elves could give advice on how to do synthesis without in-house NMR, but I don't know that that kind of synthesis would be my choice.

I suspect that this might work for pharma, but only by cutting enough corners and then hoping the developers who purchase the leads clean them up. The VC handlers'll get rich, and everyone else will probably get screwed. Including your patients.

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32. Skeptic on March 12, 2010 8:25 PM writes...

Its incredible that the corporate chemists around here still believe that their skills are invaluable towards corporate goals when in reality *POSITIVE CORPORATE REPUTATION PERCEPTION* contributes at least 50% of market cap valuation today.

Once the stupid investors get tired of corporate captains promoting image, reputation and news to support stock valuations and getting paid huge salaries to so, the chemists will find out where INNOVATION is really valued at... which IMO is a big fat 0.

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33. TFox on March 13, 2010 2:02 AM writes...

The high robot density might be explainable by the presence of incredibly cheap used ones on eBay. There's lots of used equipment priced at 10 cents on the dollar, but in robots, it's more like 1 cent on the dollar. Even if you don't have an immediate need, even if the machine doesn't work, it can be hard to resist.

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34. SMILES on March 13, 2010 3:08 AM writes...

Such garage or garage-like biotechs (a.k.a. reagents/assay kits/synthesis/screen/drug discovery/virtual dev/(re)formulation companies) happen all the time in Silicon Valley, which are generally started right after bubble and even more right now. Successful examples? Here is one: a garage biotech/reagent company in SF East Bay Area, set up and run by an Asian immigrant and PhD in biology, and reached annual sale of ca. $5M in 4-5 years. It was later bought by an Australian company for ca. $50M in cash after rejected 50:50 merger proposal from another SF Bay Area biotech. The later biotech was heavily invested by one of Chiron’s co-founder (you know whom). Of course, for apparent reasons the founder who was also the only full-time employee in this garage biotech company has no intention to put an announcement even in national media.

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35. SMILES on March 13, 2010 3:32 AM writes...

By the way, to "Anonymous" at another post, just confirmed this biologist speaks Mandarin, too and around his 40s when he sold his one-man garage company.

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36. gippgig on March 13, 2010 4:17 AM writes...

The Amateur Scientist column in Scientific American had an article on very simple genetic engineering way back in June 1994.
Would a garage lab be suitable for developing new reaction methods (i.e., ones that use less dangerous chemicals)?

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37. Pat Pending on March 14, 2010 1:36 AM writes...

Cloud, the research park handles the non-hazardous waste and I do not want to know where the hazardous waste is going.

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38. RenegadeSci on March 15, 2010 3:44 AM writes...

Can I Haz Garage Lab?

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39. Anonymous on March 15, 2010 11:06 AM writes...

#10 had me laughing out loud. I used to work with a guy who had been through a site closure earlier in his career - apparently the site was a rented space in an office park and the lease stipulated that the buildings had to be left as shells, so the company let employees take whatever they wanted - people were even taking air conditioning compressors off the roof!

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40. Anonymous on March 16, 2010 5:53 AM writes...

Hap (Comment 31) - I used to work at a generic drug company with no NMR - we did indeed use TLC to compare a product to a USP standard sample, and sometimes to a known impurity or decomposition product sample. I was surprised to find that TLC existed outside of undergrad teaching labs!

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41. Doug on March 22, 2010 9:56 AM writes...

Most of the commenters here have it wrong. The advantage that a garage lab has is not the low cost of the facility. It is the lack of a front office which makes this such an attractive proposition. The lack of overpaid suits sitting in the executive boardroom supressing innovation, both saves money and allows researchers the freedom to pursue novel lines of thought.

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42. John on March 31, 2010 2:48 AM writes...

Hah, I love you Doug

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