By Ben Butkus
Korean life science tool shop Ahram Biosystems this week announced the US commercial launch of its Palm PCR system, a handheld, battery-powered thermocycler designed to perform endpoint PCR for a variety of indoor and outdoor applications.
The new system costs less than $10,000 while retaining the performance standards of existing higher-priced platforms, according to Ahram, which is betting on a strong market demand for a thermal cycler that can be used with the same degree of portability and ease as a mobile phone.
"The Palm PCR system will change the way scientists think about PCR," said Ahram president and CEO Hyun Jin Hwang. "It is now possible to do PCR anywhere, anytime, without giving up reliability and efficiency. Biotechnology is entering, in the same way information technology did before, a new era where small-sized mobile instruments delivering high performance and convenience will be the norm."
Ahram, which is based in Seoul and has a subsidiary in Sunnyvale, Calif., began developing the Palm PCR system several years ago and, as reported by PCR Insider sister publication In Sequence, announced in 2008 that it had completed development of the platform.
However, this week, Hwang told PCR Insider in an e-mail that the version announced in 2008 was a prototype, and that this week for the first time the company has a mass-produced, commercially viable version available for sale.
"We found that there is a long distance between the prototype and the mass-[produced] version," Hwang said. First, fitting the components of a typical thermal cycler into a small, portable device "is like putting an elephant into a refrigerator," Hwang said. "The prototype was built with many special parts that were homemade … [and] were not commercially available because machines like the Palm PCR never had existed. We had to develop all these special parts to commercial quality for mass production."
Hwang said that Ahram tapped several "well-known companies" to develop and supply some of the parts exclusively for the Palm PCR system, and that Ahram also developed many core parts in house.
"Now the Palm PCR system meets all the requirements [for a] commercial product to be sold worldwide," Hwang said. "More importantly, we wanted to make Palm PCR perfect so as to use it freely both indoors and outdoors. We developed the technology further to make Palm PCR versatile, i.e., operable in widely different ambient environments and for diverse … samples in widely different PCR conditions."
The battery-powered instrument "delivers highly accurate and reproducible results" with temperature uniformity of less than +/- 0.1°C in a package measuring approximately 3 by 5 by 2 inches and weighing a little more than three-quarters of a pound.
The instrument is designed to conform to the standard 9 mm-spacing well format for use with a disposable plastic sample tube specially developed for the system by Ahram. "Nearly all kinds of DNA samples, including human genomic DNA of less than 0.1 ng and up to 1 kbp in size can be amplified within 25 or 30 minutes," according to Ahram's website. The dynamic range can also be extended up to 2 kbp using slower protocols, the company said.
The device offers more than four hours of continuous operation on a single lithium-ion polymer battery charge due to extremely low power consumption of less than 5 W and high efficiency, the company said. Palm PCR can also operate with AC power using an AC/DC adapter.
As opposed to conventional thermal cycling, "there is no temperature ramping in Palm PCR, thus not requiring the huge, hundreds of watts of electric power typical in conventional PCR machines," Hwang said. The instrument features three specially structured heat blocks that are maintained at temperatures suitable for each of the three PCR steps, and the sample is circulated across the high- and low-temperature zones inside the sample tube.
"Ahram's proprietary Palm PCR technology enables accurate and stable control of the sample circulation without using any moving machinery or pneumatic device," Hwang said. "No temperature ramping and simple and precise control of the sample circulation … are the keys of this innovative technology."
Hwang said that the platform is now commercially available in the US, and will be available in Japan and Korea next month, and eventually worldwide. The US price for the base Palm PCR system is $8,500.
According to Hwang, "a number of companies" have beta-tested Palm PCR for internal projects involving both indoor and outdoor use. Hwang declined to identify specific beta testers, citing confidentiality agreements.
As for target markets, Ahram is keeping a relatively open mind and letting customer demand define applications for the device.
"We do not target any specific segment of the market, because there are so many new applications that can stem from the [Palm] PCR system, likely across the life sciences, biotechnology and healthcare markets, and other related market areas," Hwang said.
The company has received suggestions for application areas, including in-field detection and/or mapping of infectious diseases, quality assurance in the food industry and agriculture markets, ecological monitoring, forensics, and biodefense, Hwang said.
"We also believe that the Palm PCR system will become popular even inside the lab," he added, likening the possible uptake of the device to that of mobile phones over the past decade.
"Users will find better and useful ways of utilizing the portable and mobile PCR system, and our job will be to support them in accordance with their needs," Hwang said.
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