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Communications and External Relations
New Knox company has big plans for ORNL technology
OAK RIDGE, Tenn.,
Sep. 10, 2001
Knoxville startup company QGENICS Biosciences is looking for big things from a miniaturized platform technology developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to quickly diagnose disease, analyze DNA, protein and other molecules.
The technology, a chemical separation method and device called the Molecular Comb, has numerous lab-on-a-chip applications, including environmental monitoring, point-of-care diagnosis and post-genomic protein research. Another application will be for high-throughput drug discovery, which is basically the process of using small chips to test thousands of potential drug candidates at the same time. The Molecular Comb boasts higher resolution than is available with conventional technologies and can be powered with a simple 9-volt battery.
"The holy grail in diagnostics is the ability to analyze a raw blood, urine or saliva sample, diagnose the illness and prescribe the appropriate treatment at the physician's office for pennies per test," said Chuck Witkowski, chief executive officer and president of QGENICS. "Such a device would save doctors and patients valuable time and enable more accurate, more effective treatment options."
In the area of drug discovery, the dramatic reduction in size means much smaller samples would be required, and that translates into decreased product and reagent costs, Witkowski said. Reduced size also allows development of assays - or tests - capable of performing thousands of chemical reactions in parallel - a feat not possible with other techniques.
"This reduces the overall time needed to identify a potential drug candidate, which is the primary screening objective for pharmaceutical companies," Witkowski said.
The Molecular Comb has several important advantages over conventional techniques to perform screen drug candidates, according to Witkowski. First, the technology requires minimal power, so it allows for quick and accurate analysis of molecules without altering the chemical makeup of the sample or requiring advanced temperature control systems and power supplies.
Second, because of the way the samples are divided into their component parts, the technology offers far greater resolution and preliminary results show that excellent sample separation can be achieved within seconds. Witkowski believes this technique will cause a paradigm shift in the way researchers and doctors study and analyze processes at the molecular level.
Lab-on-a-chip devices, chosen by MIT Technology Review as one of 10 technologies expected to change the world, are projected to revolutionize the drug discovery, genomics and diagnostic marketplaces.
"What makes these technologies so impressive is a combination of small size, low power requirements and decreased costs," Witkowski said.
QGENICS, which employs six, signed a one-year option agreement with the Department of Energy's ORNL for an exclusive license of the Molecular Comb. Witkowski and partner Justin Treadwell hope to employ 12 to 15 and begin production of a handheld instrument within a year. They plan to focus initially on point-of-care diagnostics and drug discovery.
Witkowski and Treadwell set up QGENICS with the assistance of the Tennessee Technopreneurial Leadership Center, which provides gifted students and professionals with the guidance to create, own and operate a high-tech company. The center provides instruction and mentoring and world-class intellectual property from ORNL and other commercial sources.
The technology that led to the Molecular Comb was developed by Thomas Thundat and Tom Ferrell of ORNL's Life Sciences Division and Gilbert Brown of the Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division.
ORNL is a DOE multiprogram facility operated by UT-Battelle.