Last week, it was announced that Nanobiosym, a local research and development organization, had received a prestigious award, the grand prize in the Nokia Sensing XChallenge, for its Gene-RADAR® sensing technology that will “transform the way health care is delivered by enabling personalized diagnostic testing” (XPrize press release). I have been interested in Nanobiosym for awhile because its CEO, Anita Goel, is a proponent of inexpensive, point-of-care (POC) diagnostics for under-resourced areas and is an alum of MIT, my alma mater. I have also written several postings on POC companies and their technologies (e.g., “RTPCR for All”) and on diagnostics for global health (e.g., “Dx Rock Stars” and “TB Dx: Getting There”) and have been a pro bono consultant to a couple POC companies. So I was interested to learn about the Gene-RADAR technology, its capabilities, performance, and stage of development.
First about Nanobiosym, it describes itself as a corporation with a mission to incubate and commercialize “transformational technologies” for developed and developing world markets (Nanobiosym About Us) and has a division, Nanobiosym Diagnostics, to commercialize Gene-RADAR, “a portable nanotechnology platform that can rapidly and accurately detect genetic fingerprints from any biological organism.” Nanobiosym has several prestigouis adivosrs, including John Abele, former chair of Boston Scientific Corp., William Haseltine, founder and former chair of Human Genome Sciences, and Bob Langer, the highly regarded MIT entrepreneurial biomaterials professor who joined the board of advisors recently (Business Wire article). The corporation has been primarily funded by government grants; in 2007 it received a $750,000 Phase II DOE SBIR grant and a $2 million grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (Nanobiosym News Room ). Dr. Goel is prolific speaker, and her Wikipedia entry cites more than two dozen national and international venues (Goel Wikipedia article) (it also has the editorial note, “This article has multiple issues”). As for key scientific and technical employees, I could only find one listed on the corporate website, Ms. Lisa Goel, a biomedical engineer who is “responsible for helping to shape growth strategies for the company.” No personnel for the diagnostics division are listed. The company is advertising nine open positions, including five for engineers (Careers).
As for the Gene-RADAR technology and device, I am in the dark. Most tech-based companies have descriptions, sometimes with nice animations, of their technology and products (e.g., the products of two local diagnostics companies, Daktari Diagnostics and T2 Biosystems). Nanobiosym doesn’t have a technology or product page. In the announcement of the 2007 SBIR grant, Gene-RADAR is described as an “ultra-high resolution optical imaging and nanoscale detection platform,” and it may include “nanomotors that read and write DNA at the single molecule level” as was described by Dr. Goel in a 2009 Gordon Research Conference talk (GRC program). A recent Boston Globe article on Nanobiosym has a photo illustration showing a tablet-like device, but I think it represents a simulation (Globe article, Globe article).
My PubMed search failed to turn up any publications on the Gene-RADAR technology by the Nanobiosym team, including any that may have resulted from the collaborations with Mass General Hospital, Harvard, and MIT labs noted in Ms. Goel’s corporate bio. The best description of the company’s basic technology is in a patent that was filed in 2005 and issued in 2009 (Nanobiosym patent). The patent describes a nucleic acid amplification technique that, unlike PCR, uses “stress” and “tension” to manipulate the primers, templates, polymerases, and products, such tension being produced by “direct application of mechanical force, by fluid flow, by application of an electric field, and/or by the action of one or more denaturing agents.” I did not find data resulting from the reduction to practice of the technology, typically part of a patent.
I assume that Nanobiosym submitted data on the Gene-RADAR’s performance as part of its applications for the government grants or submitted data as the work proceeded (a press release on the SBIR grant stated the grant was to validate Gene-RADAR for biodefense applications). Also the final judging round of the Nokia Sensing XChallenge requires a demonstration by the applicants (XChallenge guidelines), so I assume a working device was shown. Also, according to an announcement by Saving Lives at Birth, an internationally-funded program to encourage innovation for maternal and child health (SLB summary), Nanobiosym, in collaboration with Partners in Health, will conduct a pilot study of the Gene-RADAR to detect HIV infection in mothers and infants in Rwanda. My quick check of the FDA website did not find any submissions by Nanobiosym so I assume the pilot study has been or will be approved by a local regulatory authority and it will review data on Gene-RADAR’s specificity and sensitivity.
Of course, Nanobiosym may be keeping Gene-RADAR under the radar to protect unpatented know-how, but I would expect some information on its function and performance to be publicly available after six or so years of development. If anyone can point me to information I’ve missed, please do.