LavaAmp Featured in BioTechniques August 26, 2010Posted by Jim H in Uncategorized.
BioTechniques ran a nice article about “cheap” PCR (I’d prefer they called it “inexpensive”). Here’s the part of the article featuring us: “Cheap PCR: new low cost machines challenge traditional designs”
Outbreaks of Chagas disease are on the rise, affecting about 10 million people living in endemic Latin American countries. The disease is caused by a parasite, and leads to swelling and potentially fatal heart and digestive system disorders in chronic cases.
“There are people that suffer but have no way to know if they are affected,” says Guido Núñez-Mujica, a Venzuelan computational biologist. Chagas outbreaks in his home country inspired Núñez-Mujica to find a cheap, portable PCR machine to help diagnose those infected with Chagas and other neglected diseases in developing countries.
Portable detection devices are necessary in third-world countries because those infected often live in rural areas. Chagas, for example, is transmitted by triatomine bugs, which live in the cracks of homes in rural or suburban communities. Treating these individuals can be a multiple-day journey: a doctor must travel to the patient to take a sample, return to a laboratory in an urban area, and then return to the patient to present the results and begin treatment. However, with a portable PCR device, diagnosis and care can begin immediately.
At the 2008 SciFoo camp—a weekend retreat for scientists, technologists, and writers, and organized by Google and Nature—Núñez-Mujica found four kindred spirits: open science philosopher Joseph Jackson, former Life Technologies researcher and biotechnology entrepreneur Jim Hardy, and engineers Rik Wehbring and Rob Carlson of Biodesic LLC (Seattle, WA). After the conference, they founded LavaAmp to develop a new breed of portable, cheap PCR machines.
“Make the device rather inexpensive, make it portable, make it run on batteries if you need to, and make it lightweight. That’s the device that we’re working on now,” says Hardy. Their first prototype weighs only 180 grams, fits in the palm of a hand, and is powered by a USB cable or 4 AA batteries.
The LavaAmp team reduced the overall size by eliminating a standard part of typical PCR machines: the aluminum block, which is used to heat and cool the reactions ”It’s a buoyancy-driven convection current of different thermal zones created by different heating elements,” says Hardy. “And the liquid circulates through different zones. That’s how we get the PCR.”
While most PCR machines are designed for high-throughput, the LavaAmp instrument takes the opposite approach. “You don’t have the need to run 96 samples at once,” says Hardy. “For most applications, that’s not necessary.” While the industry-standard 96- and 384-well formats are really good for screening, says Hardy, it’s not practical for diagnostics purposes. Rather than this high-throughput approach, the LavaAmp PCR device can run 20–25 samples at once.
The LavaAmp’s thermal-gradient convection currents provide three different temperature zones that perform denaturation, annealing, and extension. “The platform itself made it much simpler,” says Hardy. “There’s not a need for a lot of sophisticated electronics.”
The biggest technical issue that remains is a convenient way of loading and unloading the samples into the system’s loops. “The loops have a very small volume,” says Hardy. “Trying to keep air bubbles out is a problem because air bubbles disrupt the current.”
While the initial price will be about $300 to $500, the group’s ultimate goal is to design an instrument that will cost less than $100. “The device is just going to be more or less disposable. You can use it two or three times and just get another one if you leave it behind somewhere,” says Hardy. The first commercial versions are expected to be available in early 2011.
PCR for all
Cheaper PCR machines are well on their on their way in their promise of educating the next generation of scientists, diagnosing diseases more quickly in third-world countries, and changing PCR applications around the globe.
Although each effort is separate, Jackson from LavaAmp explains that it all stems from a small but growing community attempting to push open-source biotechnology innovation. They all know each other, he says. “So it looks like there is this demand, and at least we’re converging.” He says the next year, when these cheap machines begin stocking shelves, will indicate how people want to use them.
“So how many people are going to be running PCR in their kitchen? We’re all interested in seeing the applications of the machines.”