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New Zealand Startup Ubiquitome Launches Handheld qPCR Device, Claims True Field Operability

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) — New Zealand-based startup Ubiquitome, a spinout of the University of Otago, has launched a handheld qPCR platform. Called Freedom4, the battery-operated, fieldable device can run four standard qPCR assays in about one hour.

The platform runs using an iPhone or laptop and has a six-hour battery life. It was specially designed to be easy to hold and work with for users sampling nucleic acids in the field.

In an email to PCR Insider, Ubiquitome CEO Paul Pickering, a former Life Technologies executive, said that "as a true real-time PCR instrument, SYBR [Green] and Taqman assays can be used directly on the platform without modification," adding that this "is especially important for applications where validation work has already been completed and switching chemistries is not a realistic option."

According to Jo-Ann Stanton, the University of Otago researcher who led development of the device, the name of the platform captures one of its essential advantages.

"We call it the Freedom4 because it does actually give you freedom [to] take qPCR out of the laboratory environment," she said. "The device works on battery, it also works from an iPhone connection, so you can use your iPhone to initiate a run, and to name samples and name runs. ... The results from the device are reported back to the iPhone and you can see a graphical display of what's going on. You can also upload from [the iPhone] to a cloud environment for analysis," she said.

This then provides the next set of freedoms, she said, "where you can have your team out in the field doing measurements, and yet the head of the team and the analysis group can be at home base and can start to see in real time the results that are coming through ... and can contact their in-field team and say, '[P]lease re-collect, or collect more samples,' or, 'We've got enough now.' It frees up our ability to put qPCR in new areas, new niches."

The device could also be "empowering" to researchers, she added. "Being able to do a diagnostic test when and where you need it, at the time you need it, means you can start to use all of your knowledge and expertise there and then, and make decisions about treatment ... and get yourself on the right course of action immediately," she said.

Asked what separates this handheld device from others reported to be in development in the PCR space, the first difference is that "it works," Stanton said. "That's key. We run it side-by-side with in-lab equipment, and it's comparable."

The team also "wanted to make sure that if it was mobile, it wasn't just mobile in theory; we thought about all the practical requirements that mobility brings," she said.

For example, they realized a touch screen on the platform would be a potential point of weakness, while using an iPhone to drive the system takes advantage of technology customers are likely already using, as "pretty much everyone on the planet is walking around with [an iPhone] in their pocket."

The team also took care with the design, Stanton said. "It doesn't have any extraneous ports … it is a nice square shape, the on-off button is recessed, so you can't turn it off by mistake, [and] it's solid state — no moving parts."

Additionally, the device has a long battery life, with a recharge rate of about a half hour, and can be recharged using a car battery as long as the car is running, Stanton said.

The team also made design and engineering decisions early in development in an attempt to accommodate typical users.

"People have to look at it and know straight away that it's a PCR machine, and you put the samples [in] here," she said. "We modeled the reaction chamber around what you use on a 96-well plate and the chambers themselves are equivalent in shape to a low-profile qPCR tube," she said. The consumable is a single plate with four wells. "It's a piece of plasticware that's quite stable and it gives you a surface area which you can hold in the field," said Stanton.

Starting up

Freedom4, which officially launched at the Queenstown Molecular Biology Meeting in New Zealand last week, was the product of about six years of research by Stanton's team at Otago. The university is now a cornerstone shareholder in Ubiquitome.

Pickering formerly held a range of executive positions at Life Tech, while Stanton, a researcher in the department of anatomy at Otago, was the principal investigator for the development project. Her team comprised an engineer, computer programmer, chemist, and biologists bent on embodying molecular diagnostics into a point-of-care format. Stanton and Pickering connected via Otago Innovation, the university's commercialization arm.

"Paul came to New Zealand looking for technology that he would like to take forward, and he found us. He was impressed with the research we had done and what we had developed," said Stanton.

"[The platform] had reached a point of maturity and finesse where it was the right time to move the work out into the commercial environment," Pickering said. He added that Otago Innovation was "proactive in recognizing the opportunity … and [has] been very supportive since in streamlining the spinout of the company."

At the Queensland launch, the group presented a scientific poster that included data from independent testing of the platform, Stanton said. The New Zealand Institute of Environmental and Scientific Research used the device to run assays for toxin-producing Escherichia coli and several gastrointestinal and respiratory viruses including H1N1 influenza. The Freedom4 prototype was found to perform on par with laboratory-based DNA analysis systems, according to a press statement.

"We've thrown a lot of different chemistries at it, and they all seem to work," Stanton said.

Development of the platform was initially funded by a New Economy Research Fund grant from the New Zealand government, which "was designed to take ideas and stretch them so that they could have the potential of becoming a commercial reality," she said.

Stanton said her personal research interests include next-gen sequencing, and she believes Freedom4 could be useful as a precursor technology to lead into NGS approaches.

She is currently working on a forensics study with the school of dentistry at Otago, using NGS to profile the microbiome of bite marks and evaluating whether the Freedom4 could be used as a "prep device" for amplicon sequencing in the field. Products can be amplified "at crime scenes or [in cases] where victims don't particularly want to come to a hospital or a police station," and can then be sequenced at a central facility, she said. Stanton will present this work later this month at the International Symposium on Human Identification in Phoenix, Ariz..

"It's just another example of how taking qPCR into the field ... opens up a different way for us to engage with our subjects," Stanton said.

Building on this idea, until September 30 Ubiquitome is holding a grants contest for projects that would benefit from remote qPCR capability, with platforms as prizes. Stanton said anyone with a need for qPCR in the field can apply by logging onto Ubiquitome's website and providing a 500-word write-up. "The grant is to work with ten of the top projects, to [develop an] end-to-end protocol for remote qPCR, and the top three will be given one of the devices," she said.

The Freedom4 is valued at $25,000, but the company is offering early-access pricing of $10,000 for orders received before the end of the year.

In a further example of practical uses for handheld qPCR, one applicant to Ubiquitome's contest noted on the company's Facebook page that the platform would be an asset to his research on chytrid fungus in tomato frogs of Madagascar. These frogs need to be rapidly assessed for infection in the field, and the Freedom4 is "the tool that amphibian conservationists have been waiting for!"

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