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Cornell Team Receives $232K to Develop Solar-Powered PCR System to Diagnose Kaposi's Sarcoma

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A team from Cornell University and Cornell Weill Medical College has received a grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to support early clinical development and validation of its solar-powered, point-of-care PCR to enable electricity-free diagnosis of Kaposi's sarcoma in resource-poor areas of the world.

The group, led by principal investigator David Erickson, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, has been developing a solar-thermal PCR system with potential for a variety of molecular diagnostics applications under a previous $219,000 National Institutes of Health grant.

Erikson told PCR Insider earlier this year about the technology, which focuses sunlight and converts it into a thermal profile. Researchers can use thermocouples and a battery-powered smartphone and related application to measure temperatures at points in the chip corresponding to the PCR steps of denaturation (95° C), annealing (60° C), and extension (75° C).

The user can then adjust the device’s tilt angle and chip-to-lens distance to achieve the desired temperatures. A continuous-flow PCR technique can quickly circulate the sample through each zone, achieving reactions as fast as 10 seconds per cycle. Detection of PCR products can be achieved using a nanoparticle-based colorimetric technology, and data can be read on a smartphone.

Earlier this year, Erikson and his team were in the midst of an effort to develop a "lab-on-a-syringe" sample prep module for biopsy extraction to couple with the solar-thermal PCR and colormetric quantification system.

According to the abstract for the group's new funding, awarded in December, proof of principle for this syringe-based sample prep and the other two elements of the system have now been demonstrated. With the new grant, the team is planning to begin optimizing and integrating the elements of the system into a prototype KS test, which it will then validate on human samples.

Erikson did not respond by press time with further comments on the group's plans.

Previously, the team performed successful amplification experiments using a 43-base-pair segment of genomic DNA extract from KS-associated herpesvirus. Comparing their solar-powered amplification with conventional PCR amplification using gel electrophoresis, the group found that the gel bands for the two types of amplification matched, although the bands from the solar-powered amplification were less distinct.

Cornell has filed for a patent covering the invention on behalf of the inventors and made the technology available for licensing, and Erickson said earlier this year that the team is seeking industry partners to help commercialize and develop the system for other diseases and diagnostic targets.

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