Egg Toxin Tests
Innovators: Eric Chen and Xueping Chen (no relation)
Ages: 27 and 36
Co-founders of Vitargent, a five-year-old biotech startup in Hong Kong
In 2010, Eric Chen graduated from City University of Hong Kong with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and marketing. Convinced food safety was China’s most pressing problem, he teamed with biologist Xueping Chen to commercialize the latter’s decade of research.
Form and function
Vitargent’s fish embryos contain DNA that’s up to 89 percent identical to that of humans. They’re a cheaper, faster gauge for toxicity than chemical or animal tests—and they’re arguably more ethical. (The embryos aren’t, legally speaking, animals.)
1. Testing Vitargent scientists check substances for toxicity in vials with embryos of zebrafish and medaka raised at City University and the company’s labs.
2. Analysis Within two days, certain toxins will cause the eggs to grow tumors, glow, or otherwise mutate. The mutations help Vitargent identify categories of toxins, including pesticides, heavy metals, and hormones.
Eric Chen says Vitargent has signed up a handful of paying companies to test cooking oil, milk powder, meat, water, and cosmetics for 18 months. He declined to name any.
Vitargent charges about $300 to test each sample for the presence of around 1,000 chemicals. The company says that’s 10 percent more expensive than older tests that screen for only 5 to 10 toxins.
In January, Vitargent announced it had raised an undisclosed amount from San Francisco venture fund WI Harper.
Vitargent’s embryos aren’t considered medical equipment, so its tests don’t have to clear regulatory hurdles. Brian Priestly, a professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, says fish embryo tests are more humane and far cheaper than tests on rats, dogs, and monkeys, which can cost $1 million an animal. But it’s less clear, he says, how closely human tolerances correspond to those of the eggs.