If you get sick, the first thing you think of doing is sampling and testing your DNA to figure out what illness you have—right? OK, maybe not, but this technology isn’t as far off as you think. A Philadelphia tech start-up’s newest invention, Biomeme, is a lightweight mobile system that can perform DNA diagnostics and real-time disease surveillance by leveraging the computing power of an iPhone or iPod.
A qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction) thermocycler device can diagnose sickness by analyzing DNA and cross-referencing it with DNA signatures that scientists have connected with certain diseases. Typically, those are only found in expensive laboratories. But what once required pricey lab equipment and waiting days for results might only take a few minutes with Biomeme.
At first glance, that might not seem like a significant innovation. However, here in the United States, our health care system has its fair share of problems, including long wait times for accurate and timely diagnoses and treatment for certain diseases. Whether you’re worried you have West Nile virus or an STD, seeing your doctor, running tests, and waiting for results can be time-consuming, costly, and, for some, an uncomfortable experience. There are also 1 billion people around the globe who, for lack of medical-care expertise and resources in their region, will never get a chance to visit a doctor to get their illness diagnosed.
The team’s goal is for Biomeme to become a low-cost, easy-to-use system for any medical professional or layperson to operate at home or across the world in developing countries where advanced health screening and detection are less accessible. “There are a billion smartphones on the planet today, and each one is potentially a lab point,” Max Perelman, the CEO and cofounder of Biomeme, told Wired.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is one of the project’s backers. “I want to be able to do a complete analysis as often and as painless as possible,” Cuban told Fast Company regarding the health of his team. “Right now Biomeme checks for diseases, but what they can check for will expand considerably over time. The more we know about our health, the more proactive we can be in protecting it for the Mavs and the general population.”
Although its main focus is human health, Biomeme could be used in various fields. The agriculture industry could benefit by detecting crop diseases early. That would enable farmers to minimize the spread of disease and overall food waste, potentially saving billions of dollars. Food and safety regulators could also use Biomeme to detect E. coli in foods, preventing outbreaks and illness.
So how does it work? Perelman filmed his seven-year-old daughter demonstrating how easily a user can isolate DNA for testing with Biomeme. In the video, the girl prepares a sample of urine and drops the sample cartridges into the mobile PCR docking station for processing. From this point (although the video doesn’t show the report on the iPhone), the PCR device syncs to an app via an iPhone and analyzes the specimen, detecting DNA signatures to help determine any diseases found.
Perelman aims to commercialize Biomeme for everyone from medical professionals to the general public to use. The company is testing the device in a gonorrhea study at Drexel University College of Medicine. But Biomeme is primarily being tested in developing countries in Africa and South America where mobile health labs are needed.
The decision to go overseas is a move calculated to help the company avoid a potentially cumbersome FDA approval process. DNA diagnostic testing is a field that’s rife with fraud. Scientists have warned that paying hundreds of dollars for testing from companies like Ancestry.com is akin to genetic astrology.
“If their technology works, the sky’s the limit,” Chris Laing, vice president of science and technology at Philadelphia’s University City Science Center, an incubator where Biomeme is being developed, told Wired. “But whenever you take a well-validated technology that people think belongs in the lab, there’s always a hurdle demonstrating the field version is as good as the lab version. That’s going to be one of their primary challenges.”
If the system is successful, the ability for medical professionals and clinics to use a device like this in the field will not only help detect diseases within minutes but also result in expedited treatment. As we’ve seen with this summer’s Ebola outbreak, rapid detection is critical to stopping disease from spreading.