Battling a disease as cunning as HIV can be a challenge in sub-Saharan Africa as well as other places with staggering obstacles to delivering healthcare.
But a Cambridge, Mass. start-up has harnessed the power of nanotechnology to create a tool which, at first glance, looks as wondrous as those used by the fictional Beverly Crusher, M.D. of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame. Using a platform dubbed Gene-RADAR, Nanobiosym has developed a device the size of an iPad that can offer a complete disease diagnosis in minutes with only one drop of blood or saliva.
The battery-powered device works without electricity, running water, or trained technicians, which are often hard to come by in developing nations.
Trials Set for Rwanda
Nanobiosym has begun designing clinical field tests in Rwanda, where HIV is often transmitted from mother to child during birth. The hope is that by better understanding a pregnant woman’s viral load in real-time, she can be given priority in receiving antiretroviral therapy to reduce the risk of infecting her baby.
Dr. Anita Goel, chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym, told Healthline that it can take three to six months for doctors in some developing nations to get results from a full workup of a patient with HIV. To get an accurate picture of disease progression, medical professionals need to know a patient’s viral load, CD4 count, and other indicators—far beyond what’s offered by a simple HIV test.
The device is so powerful, it can even detect strains of HIV that have mutated. This is important because in many developing nations, older, generic drugs are the only course of treatment. Using such drugs to treat a mutated virus strain is not only ineffective, but also allows the virus to mutate further, “with a vengeance,” Goel said.
Not only do many developing nations not have the financial resources for such complex tests, they don’t have the healthcare infrastructure to promptly deliver the results. They lack a sufficient number of labs, medical professionals, and clinics. Four billion people worldwide live in such places, Goel said.
She believes that she can make these tests work well at a price point 100 times cheaper than current tests. Results, she boasts, will be of “gold standard accuracy.”
The Promise of Nanobiophysics
Goel, a scientist educated at Harvard and MIT, is a trailblazer in a field that has become known as nanobiophysics, where physics, nanotechnology, and biomedicine intersect.
“I have been using physics and mathematics to understand the mystery of life, living systems, at the molecular level,” Goel said. “Nanotechnology became a bridge to bring the world of physics and biology together.”
She has found a way to get tiny but powerful motors to analyze DNA at the molecular level. She plans to bring the Gene-RADAR platform to cell phones, wearable devices, and even ingestible diagnostic tools.
Any disease with a genetic fingerprint can be monitored using the platform, Goel said. These include E. Coli, tuberculosis, malaria, and diabetes.
Indeed, Goel sees her device being used to measure inflammation, a biomarker used to indicate not only chronic illness but also overall wellness, and even aging. “In the future we could use Gene RADAR not only for infectious diseases, for which there is a dire, urgent need on the planet right now, but we could use it as an overall wellness index,” she said.
Nokia Prize Nets $525,000
Goel’s work got the kick-start it needed late last year. She received $525,000 from the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE. Nanobiosym emerged as the grand prize winner from among 27 teams representing seven countries. Winners were chosen based on the accuracy and consistency of the product, technical innovation, market opportunity, and more.
She envisions consumers taking “more ownership over their health” by measuring the body’s real-time response to food, the environment, and other lifestyle factors. “This would lead to a healthier civilization,” Goel said.
The clinical trials Nanobiosym is designing for Rwanda are supported by USAID, Grand Challenges Canada, and the Rwandan Ministry of Health.