'Biochip' aims to quicken disease diagnosis, cut medical test costs

Hydra-1K will make it easier to recommend drugs for a disease

A new "biochip" under development to accurately identify disease strains may reduce costs for medical testing and also reduce wait time for results.

The Hydra-1K -- which is a silicon chip -- can be used at doctor's offices or points of care, where a disease can be instantly analyzed to determine treatment, said Arjang Hassibi, founder and CEO of startup InSilixa, during a presentation at the Hot Chips conference in Cupertino, California.

The chip -- which Hassibi also called a reader -- heats up a culture or sample, and can identify unique molecular structures like DNA sequences, to help identify possible strains of a disease, which can help determine medication, or whether a patient needs to be isolated.

Right now the chip can test cultures or samples only for specific diseases and mutations.

The tool has sensors, I/O ports and a fluidic cap through which the sample is sent on the chip. The chip is then heated up, and sensors then assess the sample to identify specific DNA sequences. The chip is then disposed after one use.

Hydra-1K can't identify diseases from scratch. The chip instead is "hypothesis-driven," and an assumption needs to be made that a patient has a particular disease, after which a sample is tested for specific genomic strains.

Hassibi provided the example of E-Coli. The chip can check specific DNA sequences for random mutations to determine whether the bug is resistant or sensitive to antibiotics. Each disease has unique DNA sequence identifiers ranging from around 10 for urinary tract infections to around 1,000 for tuberculosis.

The chip can detect up to 1,000 sequences and analyze samples to high accuracy rates, said Hassibi, who previously was a professor and biosensor researcher in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Texas, Austin.

It'll also save patients lots of money, Hassibi said.

For example, if a urinary tract infection or respiratory disease isn't diagnosed via conventional techniques, samples need to be sent to labs for meaningful results. It could cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to conduct tests for specific diseases, and results could take a while to come back, Hassibi said.

The price per test with the Hydra-1K biochip could be between $7 and $15, Hassibi said. Other tests to detect patterns can be costly, with the most expensive being DNA sequencing, which could cost up to $700,000, he said.

The Hydra-1K will ship by the middle of next year to healthcare professionals. It will be used for one or two high-volume "applications," or for specific diseases, Hassibi said in an interview on the sidelines of the show.

InSilixa first has to prove that the chip and its detection techniques work, and then it will hopefully attract more users, Hassibi said. The reader will not be available to end customers.

The chip has successfully gone through tests with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on detecting specific sequences for tuberculosis. But Hydra-1K has not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Hassibi said FDA approval is not necessary for it to be used in clinics as it's a diagnostic tool, and not surgical equipment.

The biochip is pretty exciting technology, said David Kanter, an analyst at The Linley Group, who was attending Hot Chips.

"My dad's a physician. I'm used to the cycle time for lab tests being really high. The idea of being able to do it while I'm at the doctor's office, that's pretty exciting and cool in terms of making health care way more efficient," Kanter said.

It'll be cheaper, and also save people the trouble of going through drugs that may not work, Kanter said.

"Going through antibiotics is not hot. If we can save people from that grief, and save some money, that's great," he added.

The chip itself is cheap to make as it's made using old manufacturing technology. It's also limited in capacity.

"You can tune it for whatever target as long as it fits within the capacity of the chip," Kanter said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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