What it does: Applied DNA nanotechnology
Duke ECE Founder: Christopher Dwyer, associate professor, ECE
Applied DNA nanotechnology, from custom-designed drugs to virtual mug shots
With technology that’s revolutionizing medical care and pioneering trait-prediction tools for forensic applications, Parabon NanoLabs—co-founded by associate ECE professor Chris Dwyer, an expert in a field where computer science meets synthetic DNA nanotechnology—is living up to its name: para for “beyond” and bon for “boundaries.”
What’s the history behind Parabon NanoLabs?
In 2005, Dr. Michael Norton, a pioneer in DNA nanotechnology, Dr. Steven Armentrout, CEO of Parabon Computation Inc. (PCI) and I began discussing applications for DNA nanotechnology, as well as obstacles in the field, since it was unclear back then if synthetic DNA was biologically viable.
After validating the technology’s commercial potential in the lab—and with seed money from PCI and support from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health—PCI, Dr. Norton and I founded Parabon NanoLabs three years later, with the goal of using synthetic DNA to create breakthrough products.
What exactly does the company do?
As an applied DNA nanotechnology company, Parabon NanoLabs is at its heart a for-profit pharmaceutical company. We developed Parabon Essemblix™, a platform that uses DNA technology to design and build nanostructures, which we use as a circuit board that we can program by controlling the DNA sequence.
This drug-by-design approach uses readily available compounds and molecular biology to design macromolecules that can target, say, specific cell-surface drug receptors or genotypes. This technology enables us to do a lot of things therapeutically—from targeting diseases to mitigating treatment side effects to developing synthetic vaccines.
Parabon Snapshot™, currently in development, is a neat offshoot of this same technology. Using data mining and modeling, we can look at a genotype alongside single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are highly correlated with our physical characteristics, and do things like compose virtual mug shots. It has a lot of potential forensics applications.
How does your experience as an entrepreneur translate into your teaching and mentoring of students?
It makes me more aware of new opportunities for technology, which I can use to help guide students’ projects in ways that will help them contribute to the market and the economy. It also gives me some insight into how ECE-related careers will change and what will be expected of them over the next decade, so I can teach them to how to think about new and upcoming technology and help point them in the right direction.
What does Duke offer engineering students interested in starting their own companies?
As a leading research university, Duke has an immense number of valuable resources. Academically, students get a strong foundation in managing complex problems with both software and hardware, which is unique. They’re taught and mentored by people who know—and in many cases, are helping to shape—where the technology is going.
The ECE Department’s small size gives both undergraduate and graduate students access to a unique set of research topics, as well as opportunities to work on cross-disciplinary teams, engage in independent study and pursue fellowships.
In terms of entrepreneurship, I really encourage engineering students to take advantage of the many resources here at Duke, which are offered by both the university and the Pratt School. From the Start-Up Challenge to the DUHatch business incubator, these things can be difficult to access or put in place outside of this environment.
What have been the company's greatest challenges?
On the pharmaceutical side—currently the biggest part of Parabon’s business—it’s been a struggle to overcome entrenched resistance to thinking about DNA nanostructures as drugs. Traditional drug development is based on drug discovery, which is why drugs are so expensive to develop and test.
Our drug-by-design technology changes the entire drug-development process and challenges current FDA policies for how drugs clear human clinical trials.
What's on the horizon for Parabon NanoLabs?
Our compounds for treating gioblastoma multiforme (GBM) and prostate cancer, in collaboration with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, are continuing to undergo preclinical trials with the aim of a first-ever human trial of a structural DNA compound. We also have an artificial vaccines program and promising preliminary results for Snapshot are encouraging us to continue to develop that technology.
--by Jeni Baker