Researchers and bioterrorism defence agencies are eyeing Boreal Genomic’s DNA technology

Every week Techvibes will be republishing an article from Business in Vancouver newspaper.

This article was originally published in issue #1033 – August 11 – 17, 2009.

A spinoff company from the University of British Columbia (UBC) has developed a new DNA-extraction method that could be applied in archaeology, forensics, bioterrorism and other fields in which researchers struggle with materials that are often too small, old or contaminated to yield quality DNA samples.

Boreal Genomics Inc.’s technology has caught the eye of the United States navy, which will soon be using it to extract and analyze DNA from the unmarked graves of unidentified United States servicemen who died in the Korean War.

Boreal was spun out of UBC in 2007 by Andre Marziali, a director of engineering physics in the university’s department of physics and astronomy.

Marziali co-invented the Synchronous Coefficient of Drag Alteration (SCODA) technology with Lorne Whitehead, a UBC professor and prolific inventor.

Whitehead has developed a number of technologies that formed the foundations of such B.C. companies as Brightside Technologies (now Dolby Laboratories) and TIR Systems Ltd., which was absorbed by Royal Philips Electronics (NYSE:PHG).

Whitehead came up with the idea of using electrophoresis – a process in which particles are dispersed in an electrically charged fluid – to arrange molecules in patterns on light displays.

Marziali, however, saw the technology’s potential for extracting and purifying nucleic acids, such as DNA.

“Fundamentally, the problem with molecular separation is how do you tell one molecule apart from the other?” said Marziali.

He explained that existing methods of DNA extraction rely on the chemical properties of nucleic acids to separate them from other molecules.

In chemical-based extraction, researchers bind DNA with other materials such as glass fibre. But if a sample is too small, aged or contaminated, the materials and nucleic acids don’t bind well.

Conversely, Boreal’s platform separates molecules based on their physical properties.

DNA, for example, is atypically “long and stringy” and has a unique electrical charge.

Boreal’s prototypes – the company has sold a handful to development partners and researchers – processes samples by sorting them in a gel that’s surrounded by a rotating electric field.

The rotating electric field causes materials in each sample to behave differently in the gel.

While other molecules in the sample rotate in a closed circle in the gel, nucleic acids – because of their unique physical properties – spiral inward and concentrate in the centre of the gel, where they can be collected.

Ron Lipscombe, managing director of DNA Ident Inc., an Ontario-based company that makes DNA collection kits for human and animal genetic sampling said that sample collection in the field is labour-intensive and prone to errors because of inconsistencies in collection methods. Sample collectors, he said, are often inadequately trained and unfamiliar with genetic profiling requirements.

“When the sample is in the lab, again the preparation steps prior to genotyping are labour-intensive,” Lipscombe stated in an e-mail interview.

He added that samples are often too large and degraded to extract quality DNA using chemical-based platforms.

“If the sample is larger than required, additional extraction steps are necessary and excessive amounts of costly extraction chemicals are required.”

McGill University is using Boreal’s platform to extract DNA from arctic ice samples.

Last month, Victoria’s StarFish Medical was named team of the year by the Vancouver Island Advanced Technology Centre for its role in designing and building Boreal’s first prototypes.

Boreal expects to launch a second-generation unit in 2010 that’s smaller, faster and more efficient.

“Our holy grail is a system where you can put in a sample and have a quick five- to 15-minute reading back telling you whether there’s a certain DNA present in the sample or not,” said Marziali.

The company has thus far raised about $2 million, primarily through government grants and a small number of angel investors.

With a partner company, Boreal has received two grants from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is interested in applying the company’s technology to defend against bioterrorist attacks.

Boreal was awarded $770,000 last October through the Human Microbiome Project, which is run by the U.S.A.’s National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH is interested in using Boreal’s technology to extract DNA based on gene sequence, which is useful for matching DNA samples.

Marziali said that Boreal currently has adequate capital. It has applied for additional grants from the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies.

Marziali has not ruled out approaching venture capitalists for financing, but for now is relying on government funding and partnerships to build the company and its sales.