November 13, 2009
Tiny Helixis is riding the swine flu wave to sell its smaller, cheaper DNA machine
When the swine flu surfaced in Mexico last April, health authorities there turned to the U.S. for help. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention pinpointed a genetic sequence unique to the new strain of flu and developed a test for it.
But the outbreak highlighted a fundamental problem. The instruments used in U.S. labs to test for swine flu and other infectious diseases cost $30,000 to $50,000. The high price puts a dent in patient care. In the developing world the machines are scarce outside big cities.
Alex Dickinson, chief executive of Helixis in Carlsbad, Calif., aims to change that with the recent launch of the PIXO, his company's compact, rugged $10,000 version of the more expensive DNA testing machines. 'If you could get this out to 20,000 villages in countries like India, you could save a lot of lives,' says Dickinson of his machine, which measures about one cubic foot.
Octavio García, a professor at the Human Flu Diagnostic Lab at the National Polytechnic Institute, a public university in Mexico City that has done the majority of swine flu tests in the city, is on the list to get two PIXO machines to prepare for the expected onslaught of H1N1 cases. 'In January we're going to have three times the number of cases we do now,' says Dr. García. He likes the fact that the PIXO machine is smaller and, at 25 pounds, lighter than others he has looked at. It could be carried up to the rural clinics in the mountains of Chiapas to diagnose rare viruses or determine whether HIV patients in remote parts of Africa need to change their medications. Now that information often comes too late.
The PIXO, like its pricier competitors, employs a process called polymerase chain reaction, in which a sample of blood, urine or tissue from an infected person is analyzed against a known segment of DNA from the virus being tested for, such as the swine flu. This segment is tagged with fluorescent dyes that light up if they bind with swine flu virus found in the patient's sample. The segment is then amplified through a process of rapid heating and cooling to create millions of copies. If the swine flu virus is present in the sample, the amount of fluorescence will increase, and is measured to determine whether someone has swine flu or not.
Polymerase chain reaction was invented in 1983 by Kary Mullis, a chemist who received the Nobel Prize for his work in 1993. Today PCR machines are common in both academic research labs and diagnostic testing facilities like Quest and LabCorp. Life Technologies ( LIFE - news - people ) and Roche ( RHHBY.PK - news - people ) are the two biggest producers of the machines.
In a typical PCR machine a large aluminum block is used to heat and cool the DNA samples. But it requires a huge amount of energy to change the temperature quickly, and the temperature isn't always precisely uniform across all the samples in the instrument. Scherer and Maltezos proposed using a hollow metal block containing a conductive liquid to do the heating and cooling of the DNA, and added stirring bars to whip the liquid around inside the box. (Helixis declines to specify what the liquid is except to say that it is also used to cool supercomputers.)
The result, says Dickinson, is a uniformity of temperature across all the samples being tested to within 0.1 degree Celsius. The principal competitor machine made by Life Technologies has temperature uniformity to within 0.5 degrees Celsius.
Helixis' engineers also designed the PIXO to hold 48 samples instead of the more standard 96. That enabled them to shrink both the size and the cost of the machine; because of the smaller area used for samples, the machine needs just one heater instead of the four used in larger versions. It uses rows of light-emitting diodes that cost only 3 cents each to stimulate the fluorescent tags. The light is captured by an imaging chip from an off-the-shelf but high-end digital camera, and an Intel ( INTC - news - people ) microprocessor (running Linux) does the calculations. The PIXO is controlled by a small Dell ( DELL - news - people ) netbook that's included in the $10,000 purchase price.
Helixis has raised $20 million in funding since its was founded in 2007. Investors include venture firms Domain Partners and Advanced Technology Ventures and, most recently, gene-analysis-tool maker Illumina ( ILMN - news - people ), which put money into a $10 million round that closed in October. 'We're very excited. Helixis' instrument is very robust, very accurate and very competitive with technologies that sell for a lot more,' says Illumina Chief Financial Officer Christian Henry.
Dickinson, 47, is an Australian-born electrical engineer who previously ran photonic chip company Luxtera (which he cofounded with Caltech's Scherer). In addition to pursuing sales of the PIXO in the developing world through 90 distributors, Dickinson sees plenty of opportunity for the machine in food safety and research labs in the U.S. Academic researchers must often wait to get time on a lab's PCR machine. A cheaper, equally effective machine would change that.
Helixis, with only 30 employees, faces big competition. Life Technologies, formed by the merger last year of life science tools companies Applied Biosystems and Invitrogen, has an estimated 65% of the market for PCR machines used for research and has licensed its technology to 12 other companies making the machines. 'It's difficult for another company to come into this market,' says Life Technologies Chief Executive Gregory Lucier. John Gerace, head of Life's PCR business unit, notes that his company sells a small-footprint machine that's about 8 inches taller than the PIXO for $15,000, preloaded with reagents for research experiments. Dickinson says his machine performs far better and he already has 100 orders.
Small But Powerful
The key that enabled Helixis to design a small yet efficient DNA-amplifying machine was using a liquid that courses through a hollow block to rapidly heat and cool the samples. Others' machines employ a solid block, which requires more energy.