T2 Biosystems, On-Q-ity, and GnuBIO Report Progress in Hunting for Signs of Disease

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated. 4/8/11. 8:09 am Eastern. See updates to section on On-Q-ity.] T2 Biosystems has chosen deadly blood-borne yeast infections as the lead targets of its system for rapidly and accurately diagnosing diseases. And the Lexington, MA-based firm is revealing results this morning from lab experiments that show the potential of its diagnostic for Candida infections to improve upon the current culture-based methods of spotting the fungal invaders.

The company says that its magnetic biosensor approach was able identify five species of Candida—the most common and deadly form of hospital-acquired fungal infections—from whole blood samples and provide a result in less than two hours. This is much faster than the two or more days it can take to conduct blood culture tests in which the fungi are grown and analyzed to provide a result. Shortening the time needed to diagnose patients’ specific yeast infections enables doctors to put them on the proper antifungal treatment quickly, potentially saving their lives, John McDonough, T2 Biosystems’ CEO, said.

The firm is planning to make the Candida test the first application of its diagnostic system, which has the potential to be used in detecting a wide variety of molecular biomarkers for diseases. The firm plans to seek FDA clearance for its magnetic biosensor system and Candida test in 2012. McDonough says that the company is also pursuing other tests for use with its system, including one for bacterial infections, but he declined to provide specifics about the type of bugs or timing of the commercial release.

T2 Biosystems, which has raised about $31 million from investors since it was founded in 2006, has been one of the high-flyers among developers of advanced diagnostics. The firm has engineered a desktop diagnostic system that uses magnetic resonance—using magnets that are about four inches in diameter as opposed to large magnets used in bulky in MRI systems—and nanotechnology to detect all manner of biological substances in a range of samples types such as blood, saliva, and urine. The small size, speed of results, and broad applicability of the system give it the potential to transform how diseases are diagnosed, the company claims.

Meanwhile, On-Q-ity has revealed research of its improved method of trapping tumor cells from blood samples that can be used to help diagnose cancer. The Waltham, MA-based firm said yesterday that its developmental chip was about twice as efficient as a first-generation experimental chip in capturing tumor cells. The company—which announced the results during the American Association of Cancer Research annual meeting in Orlando, FL—says that it’s developing its technology to guide diagnoses of cancer patients, monitor the impact of cancer treatments, and to provide early detection of cancer recurrence.

The company, which I profiled last year, found that its chip that uses both tumor-binding antibodies and a filtering mechanism to trap cancer cells based on their size was 94-97 percent efficient in capturing tumor cells compared with a 51-55 percent rate of capture with a chip that uses the antibodies alone to trap the tumor cells. The antibody used for the firm’s chips binds to a protein expressed by most malignancies, making the chips potentially useful in multiple tumors types. Yet some tumor cells don’t express the protein that binds to the antibody, making the addition of the filtering or gradient sizing mechanism important to capturing those cells that might otherwise escape detection. The company is now testing its chip for diagnostics in late-stage lung cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. [The two above paragraphs were augmented and modified based on additional information from On-Q-ity about the test chips used in the study.]

“We believe that captured [circulating tumor cells] will serve as a ‘bag of biomarkers’ that will become the foundation for our molecular diagnostics business by providing greater insight into the mechanisms that drive [circulating tumor cells], leading to better treatments for cancer patients,” said Walter Carney, chief scientific officer of On-Q-ity.

Also making progress in spotting the cause of diseases, Cambridge, MA-based gene sequencing startup GnuBIO said yesterday that it has released its first sequencing data to researchers at the Montreal Heart Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge. The firm also noted that it completed an $8 million Series A round of financing from angel investors in November.

The company, a spinout of Harvard physics professor David Weitz’s lab, revealed sequencing data involving cancer-related genes generated by a prototype system. The system showed that it could sequence pieces of DNA with 100 percent accurately. (This is of course different than sequencing all three billion bases of a genome.) It seems like this is a step towards the firm’s goal of providing relatively inexpensive DNA sequencing with machines that can be used to identify the genetic causes of diseases, not just at the big laboratories where gene sequencing is primarily done today, but also at places like hospitals and outpatient clinics where patients get care.

The firm’s system, which it plans to eventually sell for less than $50,000, is using microfluidic technology to enable DNA experiments or reactions to be done inside tiny droplets—yet at a massive scale of many millions of experiments per hour. This approach could help reduce the time required to sequence genes from days to minutes, the company says. The company is targeting a commercial system by the end of the year, Susie Truong Harborth, the firm’s senior vice president of business operations, said in an e-mail.

“Based on the quality of the data being generated by the GnuBIO platform, I’m very excited about its potential for gene-expression assays for applications, ranging from small-molecule profiling to analyses in oncology,” Justin Lamb, senior scientist at the Broad Institute, said in a statement.