San Diego biotech computer chip could help detect disease

San Diego-based Roswell Biotechnology this week launched a tiny microchip it says has huge potential to revolutionize the way researchers detect disease, develop drugs and more.

The company claims that the chip, no bigger than a pea, is the first of its kind to wire molecules into electrical circuits. Its thousands of sensors give scientists the potential to quickly detect molecules, cells and DNA with a scale and speed that current approaches don’t match, according to Roswell CEO Paul Mola. He hopes consumers can use the chip at home to find out, for example, if they’ve been infected with a virus or to see if their medications are working.

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“What if you could actually have access to all this information about you, your health, almost in real time? Mola said.

It is too early to say whether Roswell’s so-called molecular microchip will turn this possibility into reality. But company executives and industry experts spoke of the potential at an event on Monday attended by investors, biotech executives and local officials such as supervisor Nathan Fletcher and board member. San Diego Municipal Joe LaCava.

There are many individual tests that measure various aspects of your health, from blood sugar and vitamin levels to proteins linked to certain cancers. More recently, hundreds of companies have developed tests to detect coronavirus genetic material or antibodies against it as signs of current or past infection, respectively.

How quickly you get a result depends on the design of each test. And while some products can say, for example, if you have the flu or COVID-19, running hundreds or thousands of diagnostic tests on a sample can be expensive and inconvenient.

This is where fleas come in. Open up your phone or laptop and you’ll see little squares of silicon filled with millions of transistors that give these devices their computing punch; in 2018, Intel announced that it had developed a chip capable of performing 10,000 billion calculations per second.

The Roswell apparatus is based on the same manufacturing process as the chips in your phone, but with a twist: the firm’s short molecules wired into the circuit. These molecules can be attached to an antibody, a piece of DNA, or a protein that basically acts like a hook for anything you want to measure. When this hook catches something, the current flowing through the circuit changes very slightly, allowing researchers to quickly detect microscopic interactions.

The company’s current microchip has around 16,000 sensors, each of which can perform a separate measurement. Mola expects that number to rise to 10 million and beyond in the next iterations.

It took Roswell, which was founded in 2014, years to develop the chip. This is in part because the changes in electric current triggered are a million times smaller than those in your cell phone, so researchers had to develop an ultra-sensitive design that was always precise.

On Monday, the company launched the chip along with an instrument that analyzes samples in the device and measures the results. In a demonstration, scientists at Roswell showed how the chip could detect pieces of coronavirus from a sample containing viral proteins.

The Roswell Trinity instrument, used to read results from the San Diego Biotechnology Molecular Microchip.

(KC Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In principle, the chip could be designed to test drug candidates to see which attaches the best to the molecules with which they are supposed to interact. Or it could detect a wide range of viral infections even before a person shows symptoms. Or it could determine if a drug is working the way it is supposed to.

The company has submitted a paper on its technology to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where the report is under review.

Mola knows that technology sounds too good to be true. Former Bay Area life science company Theranos has previously sold its own device that would run a dizzying array of tests from a small blood sample in what turned out to be a fraud massive. Company founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes faces conspiracy and wire fraud charges in an ongoing lawsuit.

He hopes that once published, the study will convince skeptics that Roswell’s technology is based on solid science.

Harvard geneticist George Church won’t need to be convinced. Church, best known for his efforts to revive woolly mammoths and other extinct animals, sits on the Roswell Science Advisory Board. On Monday, he spoke enthusiastically about the potential of the company’s technology to help researchers read DNA, often dubbed the Book of Life.

“We are ready for it. We’re totally ready for it, ”said Church, who made a remote appearance at the event. “We literally salivated over some of the apps. “

Mola didn’t say exactly how much the chip might cost, but noted that it would be more affordable and efficient than using a bunch of individual devices separately.

Roswell Biotechnologies, founded in 2014, employs nearly 50 people and is headquartered in the Sorrento Valley.


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