Genetic disease tested by beads

A low-cost device that can screen people for gene-linked diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s at an early age is being developed by a UK firm.

A low-cost device that can screen people for gene-linked diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s at an early age is being developed by a UK firm.

A spin-out from the Generics Group, 3D Molecular Sciences, is developing diagnostics technology based on coated polymer beads that can track and code biochemical reactions in a simple blood, urine or saliva test.

As well as screening for gene-linked diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and cystic fibrosis, the polymer particles can determine the likelihood of an individual developing such diseases in the future, said Dr Elizabeth Hill, chief executive of 3DMS.

‘It will give a quick and cheap diagnosis as to what a person will be susceptible to in later life, so physicians can either start treatment early, or the individual can modify their lifestyle,’ she said.

Unlike devices based on micro-fluidics, which apply a non-uniform electric field to a sample to identify a virus or gene mutation, this technology allows physicians to analyse one blood test to detect a large number of diseases. ‘Instead of one chip doing one analysis, you can add a series of particles with different antigens and use a scanner to see what chemical reactions are taking place,’ said Hill.

The polymer particles, each of which has a different, tooth-like shape that acts as a unique signature, are attached to an antibody and added to the patient’s sample of blood or urine. Each particle is also attached to a fluorophore, allowing it to glow if it detects a chemical reaction between the antibody and the active ingredient such as the suspect gene in the sample.

By going back to the signature of the polymer particle doctors can then determine what the ingredient is attached to, telling them if a particular strand of cancer or cystic fibrosis is present. ‘The particles are like a biochemical barcode. The solution will only glow if there is a chemical reaction taking place,’ said Hill.

The company is ‘working towards’ rapid diagnostics of under five minutes, although it is still too early in the device’s development to say exactly how long the process will take, she said.

The technology should also allow pharmaceutical companies to screen people to determine their suitability for certain drug treatments, said Hill.

It could be used for detecting biological contaminants in the atmosphere, including those used in bioterrorism attacks, and for more accurate home pregnancy and paternity testing.

It would also be possible to screen for genetic disorders from a sample taken from a baby’s umbilical cord.

The device will be cheap to make, as it can be produced in large numbers using standard fabrication techniques, said Hill.

On the web