One day soon, consumers may have more than just sketchy Internet information to help them self-diagnose maladies. A Cambridge (Mass)-based company called Nanobiosym says it has developed a portable rapid diagnostics device that will allow users to accurately test for many diseases in under an hour. All that’s required is a drop of blood, saliva, or another bodily fluid, depending on the test being done. Called Gene-Radar, the iPad-sized device is still being perfected and awaits regulatory approval. Nanobiosym hopes it will help add mobility and personalization to health care and become a game-changer in developing countries.
In the developed world, for example, getting HIV test results may take up to two weeks and cost up to $200. It can be a lot more difficult in developing countries: In Rwanda, blood samples are typically collected by health-care workers, who then send them to a centralized lab facility. “They would have to ship the blood–and sometimes they don’t even have cold storage–through some kind of transportation system, over roads that have potholes,” says Dr. Anita Goel, a Harvard-MIT trained physicist and physician, and founder and chief executive officer of Nanobiosym. “And if [the sample] doesn’t get damaged or rotten along the way … it will take about six months to run the test.” Next, a second health-care worker must track down the patient to deliver the results. “In practice, the patient may have died, moved on, spread the disease,” says Goel. “It’s very impractical.”
Using Goel’s Gene-Radar, health-care workers hope to be able to simply take a prick of blood, place it on a nanochip, and insert the chip into the device. Gene-Radar would run an on-the-spot analysis of the sample to detect levels of the virus, with results delivered within a few minutes.
Gene-Radar uses nano-machines to detect specific DNA and RNA bio-markers in real time. Nanobiosym researchers say the device can be customized to diagnose numerous maladies that have known genetic footprints, including tuberculosis, malaria, and some types of cancer. “We’ve even developed an application for looking at wellness by monitoring inflammation,” says Goel. “So you can quantify and measure how well you are, even before you have symptoms of an underlying disease.”
Nanobiosym, which was recently awarded a $250,000 USAID grant to fund the design of clinical trials in Rwanda, is already working with several strategic partners, including the Rwandan government and some large hospitals in India. The startup is customizing a Gene-Radar machine to detect HIV and says the cost of using the device will ”eventually be ten to a 100 times cheaper than [the $200 tests] currently available in the market.” The nanochips are disposable and will also be affordable, says Goel, though she won’t provide a cost estimate. The device could prove particularly disruptive in places where centralized labs are the norm, such as Africa.
Gene-Radar isn’t the only lab-on-a-chip project. Theranos, for example, recently made its instant diagnosis technology available in some Walgreens stores. Theranos can “run any combination of tests, including sets of follow-on tests,” simultaneously, all from a single micro-sample, the company’s founder told the Wall Street Journal in September.
Over time, Nanobiosym plans to make Gene-Radar smaller, says Goel, with the next iteration about the size of a smartphone. Eventually she would like to see wearable, or even ingestible, versions of the diagnostic device. The goal, says Goel, is to bring Gene-Radar, “into the rural village, the first-responder’s vehicle—even people’s homes and mobile devices—as well as pharmacies and doctors’ offices.”