By Ben Butkus
The pure-play molecular diagnostics company formerly known as GHC Technologies, then ICx Biosystems, and now a relatively tiny division within thermal imaging and defense firm FLIR Systems, is alive and well, having slowly repurposed its portfolio of life science tools for the biodefense, surveillance, and homeland security markets.
As a result, the La Jolla, Calif.-based outfit — now known as the Chem-Bio Detection group within FLIR's Government Systems division — hopes to be beta testing its first platform, a multiplex PCR- and antibody-based "sample-to-answer" detection system, by the end of the year, Michael Meyer, director of the group's biosystems unit, told PCR Insider this week.
In addition, the group continues to nurture a pre-existing relationship with Canadian sample prep specialist Boreal Genomics to develop automated, universal lysis and sample prep technology for potential use in a variety of markets, including biothreat detection, food safety, clinical diagnostics, and even next-generation sequencing, Meyer said.
GHC Technologies was founded in 2004 to commercialize technology for rapid and information-rich molecular detection. GHC counted among its technologies rapid filtration and imaging assays for pathogens; rapid bead-based DNA assays; fast multiplexed DNA amplification; DNA microarrays; and biomarker discovery platforms.
In 2007, GHC was acquired by ICx Technologies, which specialized in development and integration of advanced sensor technologies for homeland security, force protection, and commercial applications. As a result, GHC became the ICx Biosystems group within ICx Technologies.
Then, in August, FLIR Systems, which specializes in thermal imaging and stabilized camera systems for a wide variety of thermography and imaging applications in several markets, bought ICx Technologies for approximately $268 million, citing ICx's biodefense expertise as a main reason for the acquisition.
At the time, FLIR Systems President and CEO Earl Lewis said that the acquisition represented an opportunity to "expand our business into several attractive adjacent technologies, products, and markets," specifically citing ICx's chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and enhanced explosive sensor technologies.
FLIR also said that ICx would be integrated into its Government Systems division, but made little to no mention of exactly how ICx Biosystems, formerly GHC, would be integrated into its business — that is, until recently, when the Knowledge Foundation released the agenda for its upcoming Sample Prep 2011 Conference, to be held April 4-6 in San Diego.
At the conference, a FLIR scientist will be giving a presentation entitled "Universal Sample Prep for Third-Generation Sequencing," which will summarize the group's efforts to develop a universal sample prep device using Boreal Genomics' synchronous coefficient of drag alteration, or SCODA, technology, capable of isolating and purifying high-molecular weight DNA from various environmental samples for downstream sequencing applications.
"We'd kind of seen aspects of their technology for years, and we really wanted to combine the power of [SCODA] with some of the sample prep work that we've been doing," Meyer told PCR Insider. According to Meyer, "universal lysis and sample prep has been a weak link in a lot of sample-prep systems … so we're working with [Boreal], coupling [SCODA with] some of our lysis technologies and fluidic integration capabilities to develop automated sample-prep platforms that can pretty much take any sample-prep input, whether it's a virus, bacteria, or spore, and essentially provide universal lysis and purification."
Further, the system will be designed to handle a wide variety of matrices, such as aerosol, soil, or whole blood, a capability that will be powered by the SCODA technology, which Boreal has shown can successfully isolate and purify nucleic acids from even the most challenging of matrices.
"It doesn't suffer from some of the same issues that more traditional sample prep suffers from, such as co-purification of potent PCR inhibitors like humic acid for environmental samples," Meyer said. As such, users won't need a special kit for each distinct sample matrix, he added. In addition, "the goal here is to make this a fully automated platform. So you put your sample in, press go, and X minutes later you get your purified nucleic acid."
FLIR's work with Boreal is expected to find use in biodefense applications; however, as will be discussed at the Knowledge Foundation conference, it may also be an important tool upstream of sequencing-based molecular identification or diagnostic technology.
"We see this as kind of a step in the direction of the ultimate next-generation detection platform," Meyer said. "Ideally you'd want every piece of sequence information on every organism in a sample in order to get ultimate detection capability."
As it stands, PCR- and antibody-based assays are still the most commonly employed technologies for such molecular detection platforms. Meyer said that PCR-based platforms especially "are incredibly sensitive and specific, but you're somewhat limited in how many unique, independent sequences you can go after. And they're not as agnostic as you'd want. There are going to be certain threat materials you are looking for; certain hypotheses that your primer sequences are geared toward. Ideally you'd want to be completely agnostic to any sequences that are there, and just get the complete sequence information on that sample, and NGS platforms kind of get you there."
Sequencing-based molecular detection is not going to usurp PCR-based methods anytime soon, however. Recognizing that, FLIR's ICx group has also developed a highly multiplexed,PCR-based, environmental pathogen-monitoring system that it says can provide biothreat detection at a much lower cost per threat than competing systems.
The platform, called RapidPlex, uses a combination of PCR- and antibody-based assays to detect up to 20 different pathogens at once, including toxins, DNA viruses, RNA viruses, bacteria, and spores. The PCR products will be detected using a legacy GHC technology: fluorescent imaging of barcoded microbeads akin to a Luminex platform.
"The idea of this system is to provide all the sensitivity and specificity of PCR, but with a rapid sample-to-answer turnaround time of 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the kind of sensitivity you want out of the system," Meyer said. "In its fastest mode, we can get a sample to answer in as little as 15 minutes." It also includes a minimal sample prep component."
Funded primarily by the US Department of Homeland Security, RapidPlex is initially being designed for detecting biothreats from aerosol samples, although it may eventually be modified for other sample types. Meyer said that FLIR will be testing the platform in an undisclosed public setting later this year, and that the company hopes to be beta-testing the platform with private customers by the end of the year.
Boreal's SCODA technology may eventually find use in the RapidPlex technology, as well.
"It could be," Meyer said. "The way RapidPlex is set up right now, it has minimal sample prep capabilities … that primarily focus on lysis to achieve high-efficiency detection of bacterial spores like [Bacillus] anthracis. There are some humic acid concerns with aerosols, but typically only with really larger volumes. We're really just doing a couple of minutes of collection, a few hundred liters of air. The sample prep is almost a non-issue other than lysis, so you can improve sensitivity for spore detection."
The Boreal sample prep technology, on the other hand, "would be geared toward more challenging samples — much longer sample collection that might get into tens of thousands of liters of air; clinical samples; food matrices … anything that is challenging or requires concentration of very dilute nucleic acid."
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