After approximately 10 years of work, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have built an inexpensive, portable, easy-to-use device to quickly diagnose HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Axel Scherer and George Maltezos began investigating how to manipulate biological fluids on a chip in 2004. Maltezos then started working on applying these techniques to real-world problems. They applied the technology to diagnosing H5N1 with satisfactory results. Maltezos built a prototype of a less expensive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine that performed well in H5N1 diagnostic field tests in Thailand. However, it did not give results quickly enough to make it a commercial success.
Maltezos and Scherer teamed up with David Baltimore, professor of biology, to work on an improved device that would detect other viruses or diseases. By the end of 2006, a newer version of the device could evaluate a sample in 94 seconds, compared to 45 minutes with regular PCR machines. A company, Helixis, was formed to manufacture and sell the device. The first Helixis product was a pathogen-detection PCR instrument called the Eco, which cost $13,000. It was fast and relatively cheap, but its size—about that of a microwave—made it too bulky to be easily carried to rural areas of developing countries.
Maltezos teamed up with Baltimore’s and Scherer’s labs to build a new-generation PCR machine specifically meant for use in remote areas of the developing world. The newest prototype is a push-button model that uses a rechargeable battery. It consists of a chip that can analyze a blood sample to detect different pathogens, including TB, HIV, acute lower-respiratory diseases, diarrheal diseases, malaria, and other conditions. The latest goal is to bring the machine’s cost below $1,000 and the cost of each test below $5. According to Maltezos, preliminary results of clinical tests show the device is working well. The next step is to move beyond laboratory testing and into real-world use for those who need it.