By Jayne Fried
Small Times Correspondent

MONTEREY PARK, Calif., April 30, 2002 — Glass is about 80 percent cheaper than silicon. That’s not the only reason GeneFluidics Inc. is a contender in the nanobio business, but the company’s turning point came when it switched from silicon to glass as the material to use beneath its microfluidic and sensor system.

Launched last year with about $1 million in angel funding, GeneFluidics, like other startups in Southern California, has been on the nanotech venture capital circuit. One of its latest stops was at the Southern California Technology Venture Forum (SCTVF) recently in Beverly Hills, Calif.

“Fusion,” is how Chih-Ming Ho, a speaker at the forum, described what’s happening between biological sciences and nanotechnology. “Exciting,” he says of the industry this fusion is creating. Ho, credited with establishing the MEMS center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an executive committee member of the California NanoSystems Institute, is in the whirl of it all.

An associate vice chancellor for research and a professor in the school of engineering at UCLA, Ho was Vincent Jen-Jr Gau’s Ph.D. thesis adviser at UCLA. Gau is president and chief executive officer of GeneFluidics. The privately held company is based in Monterey Park, Calif., a shady suburb near UCLA.

“GeneFluidics’ key point is not transferring from silicon substrate to glass or plastic substrate. Many companies are doing this,” Ho said. “They are building a complete sample preparation and sensor system.”

Broadly speaking, sample collection starts by gathering cells, then breaking them apart. The next step is to get target DNA, RNA or proteins from the cells. Traditionally, the prep work is costly, time-consuming and needs technicians.

Sample preparation is the “bottleneck of biotechnology,” Gau said. “We have the whole DNA analysis platform integrated with sample preparation.”

The cartridge has a plastic microfluidics-based sample preparation unit integrated with a metal-on-glass sensor. The sensor is made of a metal alloy. Cells are broken apart within the cartridge.

The technology fuses nanotechnology, biomicroelectromechanical systems and microfluidics. It produces cartridges so sensitive and fast in analyzing that genetic material, proteins or small molecules can be identified within 30-45 minutes.

Such convenience would be a godsend to laboratory researchers on the quest for new drugs. The device also could help detect diseases in the medical and food sectors. GeneFluidics recently was awarded a $128,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health as part of a leukemia study, and there are negotiations with another company Cheng will only say is in the “multinational food service industry.”

Not only are the devices cheap, but they can be tossed away after using. But that’s not the whole picture about why GeneFluidics is a contender in the nascent nanobio industry. It’s the glass.

By shifting from silicon to glass substrates, GeneFluidics cut manufacturing costs by about 80 percent and improved the device. By making the switch, the cartridges can sell for $15 to $50, depending on their use, said Lee Cheng, vice president and general counsel of GeneFluidics.

“Silicon substrate is more expensive and silicon is not naturally biocompatible,” Cheng said. A substrate is the material upon which a device is built in or on. The technique comes from the microprocessor world where silicon is the material of choice. GeneFluidics has filed two patents and has two in process covering the nanotechnology, microfluidics and bioMEMS technology built into its sensor, cartridge and system, Cheng said. The company plans to file six more patents by the end of this year, he said.

The cartridges, along with their desktop analyzers, could replace roomfuls of pharmaceutical, chemical, analytical and clinical diagnostic equipment, and do not require a high level of technical training to use.

But GeneFluidics, is not alone in the race to streamline the laboratory. Many companies are working on microfluidics/nanotech solutions in sample prep and molecular analysis for detection of DNA/RNA, proteins or small molecules. Companies include San Diego-based Nanogen Inc. and Cepheid Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Privately held Xanthon Inc., based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is working on commercializing electrochemical detection technology for the direct analysis of DNA, RNA and proteins. Other players in the field include Siemens AG, headquartered in Munich, and Aclara BioSciences of Mountain View, Calif.

GeneFluidics is “focused on the first stages of the sample preparation, as opposed to the end preparation,” said Fariba Ghodsian, director of health care research at Roth Capital Partners, Long Beach, Calif. “They are streamlining the initial steps.”

Presently, molecular identification and analysis can take days in a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) — a technique for the amplification of DNA in the laboratory. The technology, for which chemist Cary Mullis won a Nobel Prize in 1993, has revolutionized molecular biology over that past decade and has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

“Data and patents speak volumes in my experience,” said Karen Hedine, president of Micronics Inc., a veteran player in the microfluidics market.

Micronics has developed several lab-on-a-chip technologies that are used as plastic, disposable, integrated microfluidic circuits, typically in credit card–sized cartridges. The company holds 13 issued patents specific to laminar flow diffusion mixing and separation.

“The lab-on-a-chip market is getting a lot of Wall Street attention lately,” Hedine said. From her perspective, companies with proven products in the market so far are i-Stat Corp. of East Windsor, N.J., Cepheid; Aclara; Caliper Technologies Corp. of Mountain View, Calif., and Micronics.

“Each of us uses different materials, has unique IP and pursues different solutions to a range of applications,” Hedine said.

Privately held Micronics began in 1994 as a spinoff from the University of Washington in Seattle and is now based in Redmond, Wash. Ardesta, the parent company of Small Times Media, is among its investors.

“Many companies are developing non-PCR based applications — and have the patents … to protect their approach,” Hedine said. Bloomfield, Colo.-based Xtrana is one such company.

“Even in the hype that surrounded the exploding genomics market some years ago, those companies that claimed their technology did not require PCR later found that they were not able to obtain the same level of assay sensitivity required,” Hedine said. “For me, the devil is in the data.”

Hedine is referring to “those products in the past,” UCLA’s Ho responded. The future could be different, he suggested. “The new MEMS technology applied by GeneFluidics may fulfill the dream.”


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