Spinning gold from the double helix

The key to cost-effective DNA tests may be the unlikeliest of cheap metals: gold.

By Marie Cannizzaro, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Genetic testing is already a $5 billion industry. But if you want to scan your DNA for potential diseases, you have to choose between a research institution, which can take weeks to return results, and a commercial lab, which can be expensive.

Now one biotech company has developed faster disease diagnostics -- including, potentially, those for early detection of cancer and heart disease --affordable enough for local hospitals. And it uses the most unlikely of cheap materials: gold.

Nanosphere, based in Northbrook, Ill., probes DNA using gold nanoparticles. At about 0.0001 times the diameter of a human hair, they turn out to be ideal DNA probes that bind firmly to genetic markers for various diseases.

"People hear 'gold' and think 'expensive,' but we can make about 35 million tests out of a gold wedding band," says CEO Bill Moffitt. After preparing a sample, a doctor simply inserts a cartridge into a two-part desktop system and reads the results. The procedure costs about $30 and takes 90 minutes, whereas other commercial tests cost at least $500 and may take several weeks to come back from the lab.

Nanosphere's first two products, available by the end of this summer pending FDA approval, will be a test to diagnose hypercoagulation -- excessive clotting of the blood -- and another test to determine how a patient will metabolize blood thinners.

That's just for starters. Nanosphere is studying a test for Alzheimer's, and the system could someday also be used to spot protein markers for heart disease and various forms of cancer before they become life-threatening. A test for ovarian cancer alone would create a market worth $1.2 billion, Moffitt estimates.

Nanosphere isn't the only biotech firm working on DNA diagnostics for cancer. Amsterdam-based Agendia received FDA approval in February for a genetic test to predict the likelihood of breast cancer returning in women five to 10 years after they're first diagnosed.

But like most genetic probes, Agendia's test needs to make multiple copies of genetic material, a time-consuming process that can be vulnerable to contamination. With Nanosphere's tests, "you don't need the technology of a big research center," says Paul Jannetto, a professor of pathology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "You can diagnose more patients in less time." Now that's golden. Top of page

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