By Ben Butkus
Boreal Genomics today announced the full commercial launch of its Aurora nucleic acid purification and concentration system following several months of beta testing by early-access users at various academic institutions and companies.
Boreal is touting the new platform as a tool primarily for use in applied markets such as environmental metagenomics, agricultural biology, and forensics, particularly in samples that are difficult to work with or contain copious PCR inhibitors.
Meanwhile, the company is already looking toward a next-generation system based on a sequence-specific version of its underlying technology. This next version of the platform would have applications such as detecting nucleic acids in whole blood for infectious disease and cancer testing and monitoring; and quality control in biopharmaceutical manufacturing, Boreal's recently appointed CEO, Nitin Sood, told PCR Insider this week.
"We have shifted a huge amount of resources into sequence-specific enrichment … and we plan to leverage the revenues that we generate from our current product commercialization activities and put it into R&D for cancer, infectious disease, and in the biopharmaceutical world," Sood said.
The Synchronous Coefficient of Drag Alteration, or SCODA, technology and Aurora platform have been under development for several years at Vancouver-based Boreal. SCODA uses rotating electric fields to selectively concentrate nucleic acids in an agarose gel based on physical characteristics such as charge species, linear charge density, size, and conformational entropy.
Boreal began delivering prototypes of the platform to early-access customers in early 2010, and in December it raised $6.9 million in a Series B financing round to accelerate commercialization of the system (PCR Insider, 12/16/10).
Since that time, Boreal has worked with beta-testers at various academic institutions, companies, and government organizations to work out the kinks and ready Aurora for its full commercial launch.
The company this week disclosed three such previously undisclosed academic users: Josh Neufeld, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo using the platform for environmental applications; Bruce Budowle, a professor of forensic and investigative genetics at the University of North Texas, whose lab also recently inked a collaborative agreement with Illumina for forensic next-generation sequencing; and Jay Shendure, an associate professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington.
Along the way, Boreal determined which application areas would be sweet spots for its flagship platform.
"The product we're launching is for … extracting DNA and RNA from difficult samples," Sood said this week. "The obvious application of that is characterizing microbial diversity in sea sediments and oil deposits; and in very difficult environments like deserts, or oil sands."
Sood said that Boreal has also been working with a large petroleum company and an agricultural biology company, as well as various government labs in the area of defense and forensics. He declined to identify any of these early-access users due to confidentiality agreements.
"These are all customers already … and we are moving down the path of ag-bio, soil metagenomics, and forensics — those are the things we will do today," Sood said.
Boreal will sell the Aurora platform for less than $50,000, according to Sood. "It doesn't really compare to anything on the market," he added. "We are not competing directly with, say, Qiagen, which can extract DNA very well from samples where there is an abundant amount of biological material. We are competing where there is a low amount of DNA and large amount of PCR inhibitors — like soil, sea sediments, stool, [and] large volumes of blood."
Even as it was putting the finishing touches on Aurora, Boreal started working on a prototype sequence- and methylation-enrichment and detection technology that, when combined SCODA and another proprietary detection technology, forms the basis of a platform that the company claims can enrich target DNA sequences 10,000-fold compared to background DNA that differs by as little as a single nucleotide (PCR Insider, 4/21/11).
According to Sood, this new platform will have several applications, each of which represents a potentially larger market than those the company is eyeing with the current Aurora instrument.
"First, we want to pull out pathogen sequences from various biological matrices; for example, whole blood," he said. "To detect that low amount of pathogen [DNA], you could do PCR; but it is inhibited by the huge amount of background that [occurs] when you pull DNA out from whole blood."
Sood said that Boreal's technology will be able to extract all the DNA from a blood sample while enriching for pathogen DNA, "thus improving the sensitivity of detecting the bacteria or fungi in that blood."
Sood was also quick to point out that the company would not be competing with PCR in this area, but instead helping improve the sensitivity of PCR-based detection.
"The second area we are working on is detecting [and monitoring] cancer in blood" by enriching for cell-free tumor DNA that circulates in the bloodstream in very small amounts and for a very short time. "We are going to use our technology to pull out specific cancer mutations directly from blood that will allow you to detect cancer early and monitor it post-treatment," he added.
Sood also said that Boreal is finalizing a collaborative agreement with Stanford University to work with clinical researchers in the cancer mutation-detection area. Sood will also head a Boreal office in Los Altos, Calif., a few miles from the Stanford campus. While the proximity to Stanford was a main reason for the additional office space, Sood said that Boreal will also run most of its sales and marketing activities from that location while retaining the majority of its R&D function in Vancouver.
Lastly, Boreal will attempt to develop its technology for quality control in the biopharmaceutical industry. "If we can detect rare or low levels of infections in blood and other tissues … we should be able to detect low levels of [microorganisms] in the manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals" such as recombinant proteins or monoclonal antibodies, Sood said.
"We will try to forge partnerships in this area and with hospitals and academic institutions in infectious disease and cancer," he added. "We hope to identify partners who will get early versions of this platform early next year. And then we'll start doing some clinical testing. Depending on the outcome of those activities, we'll then plan product launches."
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