With the peak of flu season upon us, scientists at GE Global Research, the General Electric Company’s (NYSE: GE) central technology development arm, have been awarded a program through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a breakthrough medical device that can diagnose the flu and other infectious diseases such as malaria, E. coli and salmonella at the point of care. In addition to making an accurate diagnosis, another key goal of the device is to be readily adapted for new strains of diseases so that new diagnostic tests can be rapidly developed.
GE scientists will be partnering with InDevR, a rapidly growing biotechnology company in Boulder, Colorado that develops new tools to assist in disease diagnosis such as the flu and vaccine development as well. GE, with deep research experience in chemistry and world-class experts in DNA and RNA analysis, will be incorporating new materials and molecular biology methods into a device being developed by InDevR. The nearly $5.8 million in funding from DARPA for the project will result in the creation of at least seven new jobs at InDevR.
Kathy L. Rowlen, Ph.D., InDevR’s CEO and chief science officer, said, “We are thrilled to be working with GE Global Research. The partnership offers a powerful combination of InDevR’s strengths in virus identification and instrument development with GE’s global leadership in healthcare products, technologies and services. The DARPA contract will not only support innovative research to improve flu diagnosis, it will administer a healthy shot in the arm for Boulder’s economy in the form of new, high-paying technology jobs at InDevR.”
Erin Finehout, a lead engineer at GE Global Research and principal investigator on the DARPA project, said, “Today, the flu can be diagnosed in the doctor’s office, but often patient samples need to be sent out to a lab to confirm a diagnosis and provide more information about a patient’s condition. GE and InDevR intend to develop a device that brings this analysis to the point of care at the doctor’s office, a remote military base or the site of a humanitarian mission responding to a major healthcare pandemic.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as much as 20% of the U.S. population will get the flu during flu season. Of that population, about 200,000 end up being hospitalized for treatment. The hope is that faster, more accurate diagnosis of the flu and other respiratory viruses upfront will lead to improved patient treatment and a reduced number of severe cases.
GE and InDevR scientists are working to develop a device that is highly portable, easy to use and requires little training. This would allow a broader range of medical providers to operate the device and enable it to be used in clinical settings that would reach more people in need of care. DARPA is interested in having a device that could be used in the field to help assess soldiers deployed in remote areas where access to care is limited. This device also is being targeted for use by medics sent out by the U.S. military on humanitarian missions and for disaster relief efforts.
Another key goal for the device is to make it readily adaptable for recognizing new strains of the flu and other infectious diseases. Finehout explained this could be achieved if it can simultaneously analyze multiple types of biomolecules (DNA, RNA and protein) in a patient sample. Most diagnostic platforms are only designed to work with one of these types of molecules. This versatility will allow for a system that not only can be readily modified to recognize new strains, but also diagnose a wide variety of different diseases. This kind of adaptability and versatility is not possible in current devices on the market today.
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