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Ubiquitome Targets Bench, Field Researchers With Newest Portable qPCR Platform

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Ubiquitome is commercializing a 16-well real-time PCR instrument aimed at personalizing the method and making it more accessible to researchers. The Liberty16 instrument is designed for use in the field but is also being marketed as an affordable way to reduce backlog in research labs.

Ubiquitome has promised to make genomics ubiquitous by providing portable and low-cost qPCR solutions. "We feel like we've made a big and bold step forward with the Liberty16 around that promise," the firm's founder and CEO, Paul Pickering, said in an interview.

The startup originally debuted in 2014 with a four-sample instrument called the Freedom4, designed to be used not just in the field, but literally in a field. It was created to enable people that didn't have access to standard laboratory resources to get a yes or no answer in their environment and be able to make decisions in the field, Pickering said.

"Because the cost, the effort, and the logistics of getting out in the field are so high, getting an answer like that is actually pretty darn valuable for those people," he said.

The Liberty16 instrument incorporates some of the elements of the Freedom4 that users particularly appreciate, Pickering said, such as Bluetooth connectivity and mobility. It is also driven by a smartphone app, rather than a laptop, making it simpler to interact with.

The instrument is targeted more toward people doing research in a lab environment, he said, but it "still offers the flexibility to take it wherever you need it, should you need it."

Ubiquitome is now in the process of wrapping up a pre-order period for the Liberty16 with initial pricing of $1,500.

The company is also selling its instruments on its website. "We're very focused on trying to change the mystique around qPCR," Pickering said, noting that buying over the web is another factor that can increase freedom and mobility for customers.

Both the firm's instruments are real-time PCR devices, but while the Freedom4 is restricted to providing a yes or no answer for target detection, the Liberty16 can be used to run calibration curves and true qPCR.

Since Ubiquitome developed the initial Freedom4 in collaboration with researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand, the firm has also done "an extensive reengineering of the device," Pickering said. It has increased throughput, but also redesigned the system with an eye toward a lower price point while still maintaining high quality.  

"We've brought in expertise from within the life science tools arena but also from the consumer electronics arena," Pickering said. In the latter, basement price points are traditionally much lower, so Ubiquitome sought to leverage that mindset, as well as elements of the supply chain supporting the consumer markets. By comparison, the Freedom4 when it launched in 2014 had a pre-order price of $10,000.

Pickering suggested that other commercially available small thermal cyclers may compete in a space more related to the lower end of classic qPCR instruments like those from Thermo Fisher, Roche, and Bio-Rad.

One example might be Amplyus, a firm that is marketing a 16-well miniPCR instrument that costs $849 on the firm's website. That instrument is not real-time PCR, however, although the firm does target educational settings as well as researchers — including those performing PCR aboard the International Space Station.

The MIC from Bio Molecular Systems, meanwhile, runs 48 wells of qPCR, but is priced more similarly to classic lab instruments and perhaps is more intended for shared use in the lab, Pickering said. 

"Our desire is to see one of our units on every genomics and molecular biology researcher's bench," he said, much like they have their own personal centrifuges and pipetters. "I think that is quite different from how other systems are being positioned," he added. "In terms of having 'anytime, anywhere' capability, connectivity, and mobility, I think ours is actually a pretty unique system."

Pickering speculated that, as technologies such as qPCR mature, researchers begin to appreciate having access to something of their own that can still function at a high level. "There's nothing that is going to replace the classic 96-well, or 384-well qPCR machine," he said, but as a complement to those instruments, a 16-well system can be handy, particularly to clear a back-up in the lab.

Junior researchers are also a marketing target, in part because they tend to have less funding. "We're trying to get this into the hands of people who otherwise might not be able to afford something of their own, and we're seeking to get a very streamlined experience, to take the hassle and mystique out of things," Pickering said.

In addition to online sales, the company has been highlighting the new instrument at genomics conferences, including at the recent American Society of Human Genetics meeting, where it debuted the Liberty16.

Ubiquitome also recently signed a distribution agreement for Liberty16 with D-Mark Bioscience, a specialist distributor in the genomics space, Pickering said. "We think that's appropriate for the maturity of the product, and they were very excited to have it in their portfolio," he said. 

The company has also been promoting the work of individual users, since "The Freedom4 and Liberty16 lend themselves to some really cool applications," Pickering noted.

For example, Holly Bowers, a member of the research faculty in the Environmental Biotechnology Lab at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, had previously used the Freedom4 to monitor algal blooms, and she recently won California Sea Grant funding from the Ocean Protection Council Proposition 84 to study toxic algae using the Liberty16.

The funding is designed to "support robust, cost-efficient, flexible monitoring devices," Bowers said in an interview, and the council was "excited to be able to support something like this, that will take us to the next level," she said.

Bowers did postdoctoral work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in a lab that helped pioneered other PCR applications for marine science, such as emulsion-based continuous flow droplet qPCR, as previously reported. She was part of a team that used the environmental sample processor units, or ESPs, at MBARI to study blooms of neurotoxin-producing diatoms called Pseudo-nitzschia that can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning.

Harmful algal blooms can impact water supplies and local economies, so tools that provide rapid, high-resolution data on species presence and abundance are key to ongoing monitoring programs protecting coastlines and inland lake systems, according to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

"The type of algae that we work with is really hard to distinguish under a microscope, and so we really need to get down to the genetic level," Bowers explained.

The neurotoxin-producing Pseudo-nitzschia australis species of algae are common, and the domoic acid they make can become concentrated in shellfish during a bloom. Other Pseudo-nitzschia species, such as P. pungens and P. fraudulenta produce less domoic acid, and are almost identical morphologically and therefore hard to speciate from P. australis in samples.

Bowers' new funding will allow her group to take the Liberty16 into the field, and do PCR "boatside, or shoreside," she said, to detect different algae species in the water and to support local stakeholders. Boatside, and even "tankside" research is much like bedside genomics, in which a clinician runs a test right next to a patient, she said. "This takes us, as algal scientists, into that realm of thinking."

Bowers initially began working with the Freedom4 after she won an instrument in a Ubiquitome-sponsored contest. "We had some assays that we had already designed [for the Freedom4] and they transferred onto the Liberty16 flawlessly, which was great," she said.

As part of the grant, the group will be transferring several other qPCR assays for different algal species onto the machines, and will also troubleshooting different kits for sample prep. For example, Bowers said her team has tested a kit from a firm called Phytoxigene that uses bead beating to prep samples for an assay to detect Alexandrium species, one of the culprits responsible for toxic algae blooms. But bead beating isn't always necessary for algae, she said. "Some of them are fragile enough that you could just use a heating or freeze-thaw step, and that's one thing that we will be assessing when we go out into the field," Bowers said.

She noted that her group did not considered any other systems prior to using the Freedom4, mainly due to financial constraints. "We're a small lab, and generally our algal grants are pretty small, too," she said. "This was a good fit for us, and being able to go mobile really kicked off the next phase of our research."

Ubiquitome's stance as a partner to researchers seems to resonate with Bowers, too. "Paul, the CEO, has been by our lab twice ... he is super interested in what we are doing and in keeping up with our results and research," she said.

Bowers will also now use the Liberty16 to work with local stakeholders as part of the Sea Grant funding. "The Monterey Bay Aquarium takes in raw sea water for some of their filter-feeder exhibits — if they pull in toxic cells, that could decimate their displays," she said. "They are super keen on us being able to come down there and do some testing right beside their tanks, to let them know." The group will also be testing water next to pens at a local abalone farm. Right now, both entities rely on weekly sampling, but tankside testing could be incredibly valuable to them, Bowers said.

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