There’s a vast, vast sea of the smartphone accessories out there that are designed to solve first-world problems (do we honestly need another bottle opening case?), but here’s one that aspires to change the rest of the world. The folks at Dreamit Ventures-backed Biomeme have developed a device that will turn your humble iPhone or iPod touch into a lean, mean, mobile DNA replicating machine that they hope will ultimately change how diseases are tracked and treated.
(And before you ask, yes, Android support is in the works too.)
Sounds bold, no? Those lofty ambitions all currently hinge on what’s called a real-time qPCR thermocycler, a generally pricey bit of lab equipment that amplifies traces amounts of DNA into more easily detectable quantities. They’re ideal for detecting diseases, but their heft (and hefty price tags) means that the thousands of small clinics around the world can’t afford to use them with any sort of regularity. That’s where Biomeme comes in.
In less than a year, the five person team has created a version they claim is just as accurate as those expensive models but only costs a fraction of the price. That’s because the brain of the system is a humble smartphone connected via Bluetooth — here’s how the whole shebang works.
Once you’ve connected your smartphone over Bluetooth, you slot it into the mobile PCR machine. Then you crack open a test kit that’s designed to detect different diseases (sold separately, think of it as health-conscious twist on the old razor-and-blade model) and do a bit of pipetting. After a bit of sample test prep — co-founder and bizdev lead Max Perelman says “even VCs” have been unable to screw up the process), you load the sample into the top of the machine and wait for your results.
Inside the prototype’s 3D-printed chassis is an Arduino that runs the show — it adjusts the machine’s temperature with heaters and fans, controls the excitation light, and handles the wireless connection with the iOS device. Meanwhile the iDevice’s camera is used to detect how luminescent those target DNA sequences are, and the corresponding app checks to see how closely they match the signature of whatever disease you’re looking for. The current version of the hardware isn’t quite as polished as the team would hope and it’s chock-full of open-source, hack-friendly components, but co-founder Marc DeJohn says they’d like to keep it that way if at all possible.
The team is aiming to sell its initial run of smartphone-centric PCR machines for about $1,000, but that’s just the start — should they get significant traction from the medical community at that price point, Biomeme wants to try and bring down the price to the level where you average curious consumers could pick one up without breaking the bank. That’s the overarching goal here: to democratize DNA testing.
Sadly, Perelman says the United States isn’t as bullish on smartphone-centric human health initiatives as it could be, so Biomeme is tackling a less complex domestic conundrum for now: the safety of your leafy greens. The startup is pushing to make its mark in South America and Africa by creating a sort of decentralized lab system though — ideally, these clinics and mobile labs will be performing their own disease testing in the field in real-time, and uploading their results so other doctors can get a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening where.