This is the first article in a two-part series of Q&A conversations with Dr. Aaron Sato, CSO of Twist Biopharma. Part two will focus on running a life science business and appear in the summer edition of Benchtalk Journal.
Adapting To The COVID-19 Crisis: A Conversation with Dr. Aaron Sato, CSO of Twist Biopharma
Dr. Aaron Sato is the Chief Scientific Officer of Twist Biopharma, a division of Twist Bioscience, where he is leading the biologics drug discovery program. Prior to Twist Bioscience, he led the California Antibody Center as CSO of LakePharma, which discovers novel antibody therapeutics for its clients. This was preceded by senior leadership positions at Surrozen, Sutro Biopharma, OncoMed Pharmaceuticals, and Dyax Corporation. He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in biological chemistry where he studied the structure - function relationship of proteins. He has dedicated his career to protein engineering and antibody discovery and is an author of over 30 peer reviewed papers and 40 issued patents in the antibody space.
Twist Bioscience is a leading and rapidly growing synthetic biology and genomics company that has developed a disruptive DNA synthesis platform to industrialize the engineering of biology. The core of the platform is a proprietary technology that pioneers a new method of manufacturing synthetic DNA by “writing” DNA on a silicon chip. Twist is leveraging its unique technology to manufacture a broad range of synthetic DNA-based products, including synthetic genes, tools for next-generation sequencing (NGS) preparation, and antibody libraries for drug discovery and development. Twist is also pursuing longer-term opportunities in digital data storage in DNA and biologics drug discovery.
In March, Twist quickly launched two products to support the fight against the novel coronavirus. The first is a synthetic RNA positive control, which is a safe and robust control to confirm that a positive test is truly a positive. The use of synthetic RNA replaces the need for live virus in RT-PCR and NGS testing protocols. The second product is an NGS target enrichment panel for SARS-CoV-2, the disease which causes COVID-19. This panel is exceptionally useful for environmental monitoring and surveillance testing as well as for tracking and monitoring the disease as it has evolved.
We had the chance to sit down with Dr. Sato to hear his thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis, how Twist is responding, and how the biopharma community can move forward from this pandemic.
Q: What is the current state at Twist Bioscience?
Luckily, Twist is still open. A lot of our workforce is able to work from home, but there are still a good number of folks that are going into the lab to continue all the great work that we've talked about publicly. For example, we've announced that we are making positive RNA controls and NGS target enrichment panels which are both products that are really helping us to fight this pandemic. This is really important work for us to continue to do.
Zooming out a bit, of course the world has definitely been turned upside down. There's a lot of uncertainty and distraction out there. And things certainly could change, but for the time being, we are open. We're continuing to produce all the great products that we build and sell. And the biopharma team that I lead is actually working to push forward our projects, as well.
Q: Why is it so important that Twist stays open in this unprecedented time?
Simply put, the scientific community is leaning on us to deliver DNA. They're ordering clonal genes that might encode for antibodies or different antigens associated with the virus. They're ordering NGS kits to look at and sequence viral genes. As I mentioned, we just came out with some controls for SARS-CoV-2 that a lot of people are getting excited about because they can be used in their PCR-based assays. So they are really leaning on us to stay open right now because of all these great products that we provide and will make a significant impact in the current fight against COVID-19.
Q: How is Twist adapting to changing working conditions due to the coronavirus outbreak, especially the need for remote work?
Interestingly enough, I think we were kind of already set up to do this. I often say Twist is like a tech company in many ways, in the sense that communication is very fluid in the company. We use all kinds of different applications to collaborate, such as Zoom.
“Everything that we do is online, so we don't even actually use paper notebooks.”
That allows us to have virtual meetings and keep the lines of communication open. If anything, we're trying to over-communicate. These tools have really been working well to make sure things happen, even though nothing will ever replace face-to-face interaction.
And for me personally, I'm not always in the lab anyway. So it's been a pretty easy transition for myself just to work with folks, because again, I'd usually be traveling and working online. For me, in terms of communication with the team and what's going on in the lab, it's been pretty seamless. I know that for other groups, where it is necessary for the team to be in the office and deal with things face-to-face, it's been a little bit more challenging. They've had to be a little bit creative as to how they work and communicate in that way, but they're coming up with great solutions.
Q: How has your thinking around promoting Twist as a company changed as a result of COVID-19?
Under normal circumstances, I would be going to a lot of conferences and giving presentations about Twist Biopharma. Due to COVID-19, we'll probably replace some of that with webinars and other digital events that we're going to be rolling out in the near future. We really want to get the word out and be very outward facing and intentional about the variety of initiatives we are pushing forward to get people excited about the different technologies that we have to offer.
Q: Do you see any potential longer term effects – say, a year or two down the road – that the current situation could have for Twist?
Of course this unprecedented situation is very tragic and has caused, and will continue to cause tremendous devastation. But if I were to be an optimist, I think we could take this as an opportunity, once it passes, to think about the future and how, when things like this happen again, we can respond to them even faster than we did this time around. Getting in that mindset going forward will be essential, so that we start to think about how we can create other products and processes to help others that are fighting diseases even beyond COVID-19. What we should think about is – how can we proactively mobilize and come up with solutions that help people urgently fighting diseases?
Q: Building upon the idea of proactive solutions, how can we ensure that the next time this happens the scientific community will be ready to mount an even faster and stronger response?
What we're seeing with this current situation is that people are coming together, and collaborating. They're focusing on the end results and getting solutions to the market as quickly as possible. My hope is that when people come together for these challenges, it also brings them closer together for other things down the road. Hopefully when something like this happens again, and it probably will, we'll be even more prepared for it, because people will have those connections already. And they'll just come together almost instinctively to meet the challenges head on.
Q: It has been amazing to see the life science industry coming together to fight this crisis. Does that leave you optimistic about the future of scientific collaboration?
Absolutely! For example, in this case there was a lot of sharing of sequences of the novel coronavirus. People then used, and are currently using, those sequences to create all kinds of products, like we did with the positive RNA controls. Because of the active sharing of data, there were some really great examples that allowed folks to collaborate much more readily and come up with very important tests, controls, assays, and other products.
That's what scientists do all the time anyway. They love sharing data and collaborating. But, at this moment in time, they’re getting the chance to think at a higher level about how they can help people, rather than just think about the business that they sit in.