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Chai Biotechnologies Starts Crowdfunding Campaign to Market $1,500 qPCR Platform

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) — A former software engineer and self-proclaimed "do-it-yourself" biologist who previously marketed an ultra-cheap thermal cycler for fellow amateur biologists has formed a new company to commercialize a similarly inexpensive quantitative PCR platform.

The company, Chai Biotechnologies, this week launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to help shepherd the product to market. Dubbed Open qPCR, the platform is designed to perform a wide array of real-time PCR applications, but will cost $1,500 — a fraction of the price of most commercial qPCR instruments.

Chai Bio is being spearheaded by CEO Josh Perfetto, who in 2011 along with colleague Tito Jankowski launched the "OpenPCR" initiative.

OpenPCR is an open-source thermal cycler that is assembled from off-the-shelf components and costs approximately $500, which was at least three times cheaper than any endpoint PCR machine that was on the market at that time.

Perfetto and Jankowski successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to launch that platform, and were able to sell and ship the kits to a number of high schools, biotech companies, and hobbyists.

"Though revolutionary at the time, OpenPCR, like all endpoint PCR thermocyclers, was a relatively basic machine," Chai Bio states on its Kickstarter campaign page. "It simply heats and cools a piece of metal in a precise manner. This thermal cycling facilitates the PCR reaction which selectively amplifies DNA, enabling the many applications of PCR described on this page. However turning this amplified DNA into useful information requires downstream laboratory processes which are too laborious, costly, and error-prone for most diagnostic uses."

To take this next step, Perfetto initiated the Open qPCR project in 2012, assembling a team of engineers "to couple the thermal cycling accuracy of OpenPCR with an optical detection system, powerful modern processor, and modern ethernet, wifi, web, and touch screen interfaces," the company said. "And unlike OpenPCR, which was a … DIY kit, Open qPCR is a professionally assembled ready-to-use system, though it stays true to its DIY bio roots."

Open qPCR has a 16-well sample capacity using 100- or 200-µL tubes. It features a visual, web-based interface for protocol editing, plate layout, and results interpretation. The integrated touch screen and wireless connectivity will support field use, while an open API supports automation applications. The platform will also feature a low-power mode for isothermal amplification applications.

Chai Bio said that the platform is capable of applications such as genetic genotyping, pathogen detection, and relative DNA quantification. The system is currently available for $1,499 as part of the Kickstarter campaign and is expected to ship in March 2015.

In order to perform tests, beyond the instrument and provided reagents users will need their own PCR primers specific to their application and control DNA. The company plans to create an open source database of PCR assays next year, and beta access to this database is available as a Kickstarter reward.

However, "as a first step towards that vision, we're offering a Biohacker Kit available separately or as an add-on to an Open qPCR reward," the company noted. This kit will ship internationally and contain PCR primers and a control library for five tests: "one pertaining to fraudulently labeled food, another to a gene associated with athletic ability (ACTN3), and three other tests which will be decided on by backers," the company said.

The kit will also contain reagents for 50 DNA extractions, qPCR reagents for 100 reactions, a laboratory pipette, two boxes of pipette tips, PCR strips, and sterile cotton swabs for collecting DNA.

Chai Bio's Kickstarter campaign runs until Dec. 4, and is also raising funds to donate instruments to Ebola clinics in Western Africa, the company said.

The DIY bio movement may be having somewhat of a moment. Notably, last week Cambridge, Mass.-based Amplyus launched its own Kickstarter campaign to help bring its miniPCR platform into full production. This system is for endpoint PCR, and is more akin to the original OpenPCR project. It will come pre-assembled, and is expected to cost anywhere between $400 and $800 depending on the success of the crowd-funding campaign, Amplyus said.

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