By Ben Butkus
Canon US Life Sciences, a subsidiary of Canon USA, and the University of Maryland this week launched a research collaboration to develop an automated, cartridge-based, molecular testing system for rapid infectious disease diagnosis.
The collaboration will combine several Canon technologies — including microfluidic PCR technology licensed from Caliper Life Sciences and various innovations from Canon's imaging and printing products — with sample prep, digital PCR, and sequencing components being developed by bioengineers at the university, according to a Canon USA spokesperson.
The overarching goal of the project, Canon said, is to develop an integrated system that will allow clinical staff to identify bacterial pathogens in human blood in an hour with reduced cost and biomedical waste.
The research team will be led by Hiroshi Inoue, senior fellow at Canon US Life Sciences in Rockville, Md.; and William Bentley, chair of the department of bioengineering at UMD's A. James Clark School of Engineering. Co-researchers include Keith Herold and Ian White, both researchers in UMD's bioengineering department.
The origins of the project trace back to 2006, when Canon took a non-exclusive access to Caliper's microfluidics intellectual property to help the traditional consumer, office, and medical products company break into the human molecular diagnostics arena.
The companies inked the licensing agreement in the second quarter of 2006, according to a Caliper news release; and in early November that same year they co-presented the early results of their collaboration at the International Conference on Miniaturized Systems for Chemistry and Life Sciences in Tokyo.
As described in a scientific abstract from the meeting, the early prototype technology platform integrated PCR and thermal melt analysis on a microfluidic chip to produce an instrument with a thermal ramp rate that was orders of magnitude higher than existing instrumentation.
Since that time, Canon has been relatively quiet on development of the platform, but has gradually accumulated various patents related to microfluidic real-time PCR, infectious disease probes, thermal cyclers, melt curve analysis, and other related technologies.
Recently, however, the company has been ramping up activity in its US Life Sciences division, underscored by an announcement earlier this month that it had appointed Toru Nishizawa, a Canon veteran that most recently led the Office Imaging Products Business Support unit, as President and CEO of Canon US Life Sciences.
In addition, besides the UMD collaboration announced this week, the company has entered its technology platform in the Spark Design and Architecture Awards, an annual multi-level design competition organized by various international design and other professionals.
According to the company's entry, the genetic analysis system is a benchtop, touchscreen instrument that features two core technologies: Canon’s CMOS sensor, used in Canon consumer digital cameras and other imaging devices to convert optical images to electric signals; and the Caliper-licensed technology, which the company calls In-line PCR.
In an e-mail to PCR Insider this week, the Canon spokesperson said that the genetic analysis system also uses bubble jet, or ink jet, semiconductor heating technology, found in many of Canon's printer products. This technology, the spokesperson said, is part of what will enable the system to produce fast time to result, presumably through fast thermal cycling rates.
However, the current system is missing several key components that would make it a truly integrated, sample-to-answer platform, which is where the UMD researchers come in.
"The collaboration involves two working groups," the spokesperson said. "The first group is focusing on sample preparation for bacterial genes from whole blood. The other is focusing on DNA amplification and the sequential analysis of the DNA in order to identify the strains of bacteria." Examples of bacterial pathogens that the partners will focus on include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and vancomycin-resistant Enterococci.
Canon US Life Sciences and the UMD team are "utilizing the facilities at the university, including their leading-edge digital PCR technologies for infectious diseases, and applying Canon's In-line PCR cartridge technology to develop the system, which can achieve practical performance targets proposed by Canon," the spokesperson added without elaborating. "The collaboration leverages the research capabilities of the university and CULS and is working to make Canon's technologies adaptive to a broader range of tests."
Canon did not provide a development timeline for the molecular diagnostic platform.
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