By Ben Butkus
In an effort to bring PCR to the masses, a pair of Bay Area entrepreneurs and self-described "bio-hackers" has designed an open-source thermal cycler that can be assembled from off-the-shelf components and costs around $500 — at least three times cheaper than the least expensive thermal cyclers on the market.
Having raised about $12,000 through the online fundraising site Kickstarter.com, the duo in the next few months plans to ship the first couple dozen of the so-called "OpenPCR" kits to early customers to assemble in their own workspaces, the project's co-founder said.
Eventually, the pair hopes to sell fully assembled plug-and-play versions to customers and expand beyond the "do-it-yourself" biology crowd to customers in high school, university, and other laboratories who wish to own their own thermal cyclers for fast and easy benchtop experiments.
This week, the duo, Tito Jankowski and Josh Perfetto, celebrated the one-year anniversary of the start of their project. Jankowski, who studied biomedical engineering at Brown University, and Perfetto, whose professional background is in software consultancy, both developed an interest in synthetic biology and explored that curiosity by joining a local chapter of DIYBio, a national organization of amateur biologists.
"It's a lot of people interested in science and technology and … coming together and saying things like, 'Hey, we want to look at our genomes, or try things like 23andMe [personal genetic testing], and see if we can do experiments in a garage instead of a lab," Jankowski told PCR Insider recently.
"OpenPCR really grew out of that, because we thought that a PCR machine — in both the professional and amateur world — is still kind of a bottleneck for a lot of work with DNA," Jankowski added. From the hobbyists' side — we saw stuff for sale on eBay … but still, you're getting used equipment, no warranty, and you're not even sure if it's going to work. We thought that maybe we can solve that problem."
Jankowksi and Perfetto set out to build a prototype thermal cycler which, according to Jankowski, "is not that complicated, to be honest. The design has been around for a while, using a Peltier cooling and heating element. The basic device has the [thermal] block, the Peltier [element], some sort of power supply, and a computer to control it all."
The duo first thought about developing a thermal cycler capable of performing real-time PCR, but quickly found that would be more of a challenge, particularly because it would require specifically engineered physical components.
"To give you an idea, the heated lid has probably been the most complicated component of the whole OpenPCR machine," Jankowski said. "It rivals [the difficulty of] the whole PCR machine itself. You come from working on electronics, where you need to control power, cycling temperature, all this stuff; and the heated lid is the opposite of that — it's mechanical, physical."
It wasn't long before the duo had a working prototype — "but it's one thing to go from a prototype to getting something that works reliably and then something that you can produce in quantity," Jankowski said.
To achieve this next step, the pair began sourcing off-the shelf components that could be easily incorporated into a mass-produced product. They also began to look for funding, which is when they turned to Kickstarter.com.
"That was a fantastic way to get OpenPCR started," Jankowski said. "We saw that we would need … funds to do prototyping, to go and buy all the parts we needed to test out, et cetera. So we put up a video on Kickstarter. We didn't have too high of expectations, but it actually blew us away."
Jankowski and Perfetto set a goal of $6,000 and ended up getting double that amount, $12,000. What's more, it helped attract interest from others in the DIYBio community and even from some professionals who liked the idea of an individualized PCR machine.
"We had a high school teacher say that she used to go the eBay route … because it fit their budget, and [the thermal cycler] broke," Jankowski said. "Now she is saying that … we are heading in the right direction for a solution to her problem.
"We've also had some other people doing heavy genomics work that tell us this would be really cool," Jankowski added. "It's a really fantastic fundraising device, because it also brought out the people that might be interested in OpenPCR."
In addition, the pair scored a laser-cut case for the OpenPCR instrument, sponsored by the online product design marketplace Ponoko.
Through the site, Jankowski and Perfetto also generated its first dozen or so pre-orders for an OpenPCR kit, the first several of which they will likely have ready to ship in less than two months, Jankowski said. "That's going to explore the people who are most die-hard about getting an open-source dedicated PCR machine," he said. "But of course, for people that are actually doing biology … it's heading in the direction [of being] a tool they can plug in and use."
In the meantime, Jankowksi and Perfetto have been conducting tests on OpenPCR to demonstrate that it works as advertised, and recently posted their first experimental results on their blog. Jankowski said they "definitely" plan to post more experiment results "to make it clear that the PCR is working."
Jankowski said that OpenPCR can address two separate markets: an initial market of DIY biologists "who want to get together in a garage and look at a couple of their SNPs;" and a more established market of professional laboratories where a thermal cycler, despite (or because of) its reputation as the workhorse of the laboratory, is often shared by multiple researchers.
"They have this really common problem of a grad student who shares the PCR machine with a bunch of other grad students, and really the PCR machine that most labs have is designed to be a big lab-sized PCR machine," Jankowski said. "It's not for someone that wants to sit down and run a couple of reactions without having to fill out a schedule, reserve a machine, or think too much about it."
The initial price for an OpenPCR system kit is $512. A quick web search for basic, Peltier thermal cyclers for endpoint PCR – as the OpenPCR system is capable of doing – revealed that no new instruments are available for less than $1,500. Jankowski said that he was unsure at this point whether a fully assembled version of the OpenPCR machine would also cost $512.
"I've seen them from $1,500 to $3,500," Jankowski said. "But we're really trying to stay away from the term 'inexpensive.' There is more of a market for something new and individually sized, rather than something you think of as just a cheap PCR machine. I don't think anyone really wants a 'cheap' PCR machine."
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