Farm Food Facts

Dr. Robb Fraley on Biotechnology and Coronaviruses

May 12, 2020 USFRA Episode 76
Farm Food Facts
Dr. Robb Fraley on Biotechnology and Coronaviruses
Chapters
Farm Food Facts
Dr. Robb Fraley on Biotechnology and Coronaviruses
May 12, 2020 Episode 76
USFRA

Dr. Robb Fraley, former Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto, discusses the role biotechnology is playing in learning about the novel COVID-19 coronavirus, and how it can aid in developing treatments and a vaccine.

Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Robb Fraley, former Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto, discusses the role biotechnology is playing in learning about the novel COVID-19 coronavirus, and how it can aid in developing treatments and a vaccine.

Phil:

Farm Food Facts. Where every farmer, every acre and every voice matter.

Phil:

Boy, do we have a special guest today. I first met this guy years ago, one of the smartest people in the food world in the ag world. Dr Robb Fraley is with us. He won the 2013 world food prize for breakthrough achievements and founding developing and applying modern agriculture biotechnology. And he's won just about every award that you can imagine. Robb, thanks so much for joining us today on Farm Food Facts.

Dr. Robb:

Well Phil, it's great to connect again, looking forward to our conversation.

Phil:

Me too. Um, and, and I have to start off asking, uh, from a science standpoint, from one of the world leaders standpoint, how serious is Covid-19 as it relates to agriculture production?

Dr. Robb:

Well, I think it, uh, it does two things. It, first of all, it tells us how important agriculture is. And it also points out some, uh, some key challenges. You know, I think the, the bright spot, uh, is, you know, during this crisis we've generally had, uh, you know, food in our grocery stores and availability. And, uh, I think it really points out really clearly how important it is to have domestic production and, uh, and, uh, uh, safe, inadequate food supply. On the other hand, it's clearly pointing out some areas where we can make improvements and, you know, we're, we're testing some of the vulnerabilities in the system.

Phil:

So talk to me about some of those vulnerabilities. And, you know, we keep on hearing, uh, for example, John Tyson's ad, you know, that, that the food system is breaking and so on. Is it, is it to that extreme? Should consumers, should farmers be nervous?

Dr. Robb:

I don't think so. Um, you know, my belief is that, uh, and first of all I'd like to just say, uh, how much, uh, I appreciate and applaud, you know, the work of everybody, you know, not only in the health care but, but in the food chain. I mean, you know, everybody from, uh, from the farmers to those involved in processing and transportation to the grocery stores and restaurants. I mean, it's been a, uh, a heroic gapper. You know, why we're talking here are our farmers are putting crops in the, you know, in the ground and, uh, in foods being delivered, uh, you know, all across the country. And that's, uh, that is so key. But when I think about, you know, some of the concerns that top of mind, uh, obviously, um, labor on the farm is being challenged. Labor and processing plants by a, by some of the, the covert, uh, implications.

Dr. Robb:

And that's, uh, that's the key. And you know, one of the things that I think that's going to create is a, is a much stronger on both, you know, farm automation and robotics as we, um, as we go forward. I think it also is clear that, you know, folks involved in food production, you know, need all of the PPE and protective gear. That's possible. And that's something I think, you know, everyone is, is aware of and we'll see a dramatic improvements there. So, you know, I'm confident that the system will hold together. And a big part of that is really the heroic effort of everyone involved in the ag and food chain.

Phil:

So let's drill down to really down into DNA. What have we been able to learn about Covid-19 through DNA and CA? Are there going to be any learnings to protect against it?

Dr. Robb:

Well, you know, I, I had a chance a few weeks ago to write an article that I, you know, put on my LinkedIn account that @RobbFraley and uh, commented and I'm really in awe of the tremendous progress that, that scientists around the world have made to understanding Covid-19, you know, a couple of key points, you know, within a few weeks of the outbreak in China, you know, scientists had already sequenced the genome of the virus and made that information available and that immediately allowed us to understand what some of the changes were that, uh, that enabled the, uh, the virus to spread so quickly. It gave us insights into the, uh, into the capsid protein that binds to the human cell receptor. And that created a lot of information. I think that will ultimately be valuable as we create both drug treatments and, uh, and vaccines for the future. Having that sequence information gave us the ability to do rapid testing, you know, really a very sophisticated, uh, you know, nucleotide testing that gave us very accurate information. And ultimately it's going to lead us the way to, uh, you know, creating, um, you know, vaccines and, and other, you know, treatments to, uh, to offset the, uh, the impact of this virus.

Phil:

So to that point, um, is injecting anti bodies into people who have recovered from it. Um, a way of, of finding out more about this and really keeping it under control.

Dr. Robb:

Yeah. Using antibodies has traditionally been an approach that's been used for Ebola and a number of other viral diseases. Of course, it's predicated on the fact that, and the hope that those antibodies, you know, are, are reactive and, uh, and you know, uh, create, uh, an immunity to the, to that virus. Uh, but also, um, you know, we have a number of, uh, of biotech companies that are creating and embodies in the literally, you know, using, uh, you know, the power of biotechnology and computer analysis to, to create and scan and test literally thousands of, uh, of humanized antibodies, which would allow for large scale production and injection of those antibodies into people. So I think there'll be a number of both the treatments, uh, possible, you know, based on antibody, based on the development and design of, uh, of new drugs. And, and ultimately what everyone's hoping for is the, is the creation of, of vaccines. And there again, you know, we're seeing multiple approaches. So the last time I looked, I think across the globe there were over a hundred different vaccines in development using lots of new and sophisticated biotechnology methods to create, um, vaccines that, you know, are reactive to only portions of the, uh, of the virus and, uh, and create the opportunity for, uh, for many different approaches. And that's going to be obviously so key to, uh, to managing this pandemic for sure for the future.

Phil:

I also saw, I believe it's at Oxford, um, in the UK, there's, um, a scientist such as yourself who's working on it, who's already injected, I think he said over 5,000 people, um, with the antibody so that, you know, come early June, he's going to know whether or not that worked. Okay.

Dr. Robb:

Yeah, there's lots of testing going on around the globe and uh, and that's going to be key to find out exactly which antibodies have the capacity to neutralize the virus.

Phil:

One of the topics that I know is near and dear to your heart is gene editing. What role, if any, does gene editing have in controlling or eliminating this virus?

Dr. Robb:

Well, you know, gene editing is a pretty new technology and a lot of people have probably heard or, or, um, heard mentioned technologies like talons or CRISPR. These are, uh, our advanced biotechnology tools that allow for very, very precise and specific changes in a gene. And they give us tools both to precisely change the virus to be able to understand, you know, the key components of the virus and its interaction with the human cells. And it also in theory, gives us the potential to use gene editing to, uh, you know, create, uh, immunity in not in people. And, uh, you know, here's an area where, uh, particularly in animal healthcare, you know, gene editing has already been used in both chickens and pigs to alter the, the virus receptor interaction and create immunity. Now, obviously that's, that's a long way off, but I think, you know, from the point of view of having new key research tools that give us incredible insights to dissect the biology and the interaction with the virus and its processing and cells, you know, these are going to be very powerful tools that are going to speed up the, uh, the response to, uh, to managing the, uh, the pandemic.

Phil:

So when we look at gene editing, basically, as I understand, and certainly I'm not a scientist, but basically it's going in, um, to, to that DNA, um, whether it's a human being or to the virus and turning certain elements off or on. Am I correct?

Dr. Robb:

Yeah. Basically, I think of it like a, um, like a, an editor in one of your, uh, your word, your word processors, uh, where you can go in and literally change a letter or a vowel or a consonant here. You can change a specific nucleotide with these tools. And what you're doing is you're, you're changing the, the nucleotide in an existing, uh, gene. And so in many ways it's like a very targeted and very precise mutation and it works very efficiently, very effectively, and allows us to generate thousands of changes to really understand, uh, you know, how the virus works, how it infects cells, and perhaps ultimately how we can mitigate those effects in people.

Phil:

So because of technology, um, and, and being in 2020 versus in 1950, it's possible that it's not a big, the cure for it or immunity to it is not going to be, um, an injection or a pill. It could actually be, you know, manipulating the genes in our body to fight these viruses.

Dr. Robb:

Well, like I said, that's a, that's a long way off, but I think it's clear that gene editing is going to give us the, uh, the tools and insights to make progress. And, you know, what I expect is we're going to see progress on all these fronts. We'll see treatments that are out that are affected. We're going to see vaccines and we're going to learn a lot that will enable us to be better prepared, uh, you know, for the future.

Phil:

So, is there any good news coming out of Covid-19? Um, what are, what are some positive changes that you see taking place as a result of this?

Dr. Robb:

Well, you know, a couple of things come to mind for me. So first of all, you know, despite all of the pressure we've seen on our healthcare system, you know, you know, all of those, you know, the doctors, the nurses, the first responders, I've really worked together. And you know, we've, we've netted together a nationwide approach. And you know, the public has responded and we know we've asked people to do social distancing and we've certainly been able to, uh, to flatten the curve. You know, I've commented that I think it really points to the, uh, to the vital importance of agriculture and food production in this country. Uh, you know, we've had a healthcare crisis. We really haven't had a food security crisis and that, that's so important I think. And I, and I hope one of the things that comes out of this is that people see how the scientific community has come together across the board of topics that we just talked about, the, the detection technologies and the assays, the development of, uh, of treatments and cures, uh, for the future.

Dr. Robb:

You know, for me it's been a, a remarkable set and the scientific advances that are underway. And it's one of the reasons I'm so confident that, uh, you know, we can address the other pandemic. I also think it really points longterm to the investment in public and private research because the tools that are being used have been developed in just the last few years and have multiple applications, not only across healthcare but across agriculture. And many of these same tools that we've just talked about are being used to breed better crops to create crops that are more resistant to insects and diseases, more resistant to drought and environmental challenges. And so I think it, it, it really helps us not only to ensure, you know, an adequate and safe,

Dr. Robb:

nutritious food supply, but these new tools are letting us farm better, far more efficiently, which is good for the environment, good for the planet. And so I hope that the role that science plays, you know, it becomes, you know, better understood and the importance of these innovations to the broad public. It is realized.

Phil:

So last question, what would you hope and what would you like to say to all the American farmers and ranchers that are, that are watching and listening to this?

Dr. Robb:

Well, first of all, I would say a big thank you. They bought, they've made lots of sacrifices. They've continued to ensure that we have a safe and adequate food supply. Uh, despite a lot of, uh, challenges, you know, these are difficult times. You know, we're seeing changes in commodity prices in, uh, in fuel price that impacts, uh, biofuels and, uh, and other important elements of the, of the, uh, of the farming system. You know, the challenge is in, uh, in food and meat processing are really, you know, testing the system, you know, I know that, uh, that they'll do their job and we can count on him. I think as I said earlier, we've, we've seen where some of the weaknesses are and people will move very quickly to remedy that. And from a science perspective, you know, I see, you know, lots of innovations, both, you know, the advances in biology and biotechnology, but also the digital tools that will allow us to monitor and, uh, and create better on-farm decisions for the, uh, for the future. So I'm, I'm confident that, uh, we have a bright future ahead as, uh, as we see, uh, you know, these new tools reach out, reach farmers both in this country and around the world.

Phil:

Dr Robb Fraley, thank you again for joining us today on Farm Food Facts.

Dr. Robb:

Phil, good to connect again and keep up the good work. Thank you.

Phil:

Thanks. Thanks for listening to today's podcast episode. For more information on all things food and agriculture, please visit us at USfarmersandranchers.org. Also be sure to look for us on Facebook @USfarmersandranchers or on Twitter @USFRA. Until next time.