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Medford tech company fights COVID-19

A Medford technology company is on the cutting edge of developing handheld devices for rapid COVID-19 detection based on the latest advances in biotech research.

“We are helping to manufacture the chip portion of that technology,” said Jessica Gomez, founder and co-owner of Rogue Valley Microdevices.

Gomez is working with four companies to develop micro-fluid chips that can test for biotech markers of genetic mutations as well as COVID-19. One of the companies, Cardea Bio, was recently featured in Nature Biomedical Engineering and is working on a device that could deliver results in 15 minutes.

Another company is Maryland-based Hememics Technology, which is working on a handheld point-of-care test for COVID that would deliver results in about 60 seconds. The device would test for 17 different pathogens using a single drop of blood or mucous.

The chips these companies are developing are an evolution of the kinds of microchips used in computers and phones, but the new tech directly detects substances in a fluid, including viruses, by looking for biomarkers or specific signals on a molecular level.

“People are getting very creative about using chips as a platform,” Gomez said. “We started seeing this emerging about four or five years ago.”

While it works on development of these chips, Gomez’s company is practicing social distancing requirements and only allowing employees inside the building.

The detection of COVID-19 in real time is an outgrowth of the collaboration of testing of the human genome on a graphene chip from UC Berkeley, Keck Graduate Institute, Scripps College, and Claremont Mckenna College, as well as Cardea Biosciences and Nanosens Innovations. Cardea and Nanosens have since merged into Cardea Bio.

The CRISPR-Chip is the product of this collaboration, according to a March 25, 2019, article in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. CRISPR refers to a technique used for gene-editing.

“You just put your purified DNA sample on the chip, allow CRISPR to do the search, and the graphene transistor from Cardea reports the result of this search in 15 minutes,” according to Kiana Aran, assistant professor in the department of bioengineering at University of California, Berkeley, and the Keck Graduate Institute, in the article.

Cardea Bio hopes to have a handheld test kit available sometime next year that would take a nasal swab and then provide confirmation in about 15 minutes if someone has COVID-19. These devices could be used at airports or on airplanes to screen passengers.

Graphene, similar to graphite in a pencil, is being harnessed in a number of applications because of its unique structure, particularly the electrical properties. But making a one-atom thick layer of the material has been one of the challenges in making it into a transistor.

Typically most computer chips are made from silicon.

Other companies are racing to develop their own COVID-19 tests using other laboratory techniques, and the FDA has approved a few tests, though they are slower than a graphene chip.

Michael Heltzen, chief executive officer of Cardea Bio, said, “We are working day and night on this, but it will not be ready until next year.”

The basic idea of a computer chip is translating zeros and ones into data. Heltzen said the graphene-based chips instead use the data or signals available directly from a genome to produce results.

Other methods of detecting viruses require sophisticated laboratories and time-consuming processes.

With the graphene transistor, a search of the human genome is much quicker, and a similar process can be conducted to look for biomarkers that indicate someone has been infected with COVID-19. He said the device can also look for mutations in a virus.

He said the graphene chip looks for slight changes in electrical current that indicate the presence of a biomarker.

Heltzen said his company hopes to partner with other companies to manufacture the technology over the next year. He said his company is working on ways to scale up the manufacture of the graphene chips.

“We are pretty sure we can get approval for FDA emergency use,” he said.

Since the devices would be handheld, they can be deployed in a number of different settings, including on airplanes or airports for rapid detection of infected people, Heltzen said.

“As a nation, we’re hoping to fight an invisible entity and make it visible,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Rogue Valley Microdevices in Medford is helping to develop handheld devices for rapid COVID-19 detection. Courtesy photo