Life-saving virus detection device launched in Queenstown

By Vaughan Elder

Dr Jo-Ann Stanton and Paul Pickering with a handheld DNA diagnostic unit, connected to a smartphone, unveiled in Queenstown yesterday. Photo by David Williams.
Dr Jo-Ann Stanton and Paul Pickering with a handheld DNA diagnostic unit, connected to a smartphone, unveiled in Queenstown yesterday. Photo by David Williams.

A life-saving hand-held device developed at the University of Otago to quickly detect viruses and bacteria is set to go global - and millions could be sold.

The ''revolutionary'' device, dubbed Freedom4, was launched in Queenstown yesterday and allows specialists to make a diagnosis, by identifying target DNA sequences, without the need for samples to be taken back to the lab.

Department of anatomy researcher Dr Jo-Ann Stanton, who led its development, said this could save lives by saving valuable time in the event of a viral outbreak.

''What it means is that you could go to the site of an outbreak and very rapidly set up ... diagnostic tests, which are usually done in the central laboratory.''

The device would initially be aimed at researchers and vets for use on animals, but could be used for human diagnosis once approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

To sell the device to the world, the university's commercialisation arm, Otago Innovation, partnered New Zealand company Ubiquitome.

Ubiquitome chief executive Paul Pickering was ''very excited'' about the product and envisaged a future where consumers could use the device in their homes, with the results being sent, via seamless digital transfer, to their GP or other medical professionals.

''We see this as being potentially a very important component of the delivery of what we would call high-precision telemedicine.''

If this vision eventuated, the product could sell ''millions'' and take a ''big chunk'' of a ''multibillion-dollar'' global market.

This would provide a boost to the Dunedin economy, with the university a ''cornerstone shareholder''.

''We plan on maintaining an engineering and development capability in the Dunedin area.''

It was also possible parts of the device could be manufactured in Dunedin.

Pickering, previously an executive at United States biotechnology company Life Technologies, said the device was an example of world-class innovation and it was rare to come across an idea developed with such ''thought and finesse''.

Stanton said the product showed Dunedin was a place where cutting-edge technology could be developed.

She had an ''incredibly talented'' team working on the project during the past six years.

It had received engineering help from Dunedin businesses, including Mosgiel-based Jtech Plastics Ltd.

The unit weighs the same as a laptop, has a six-hour battery life, and fits in the palm of your hand.

It can be tethered to a laptop, or connect wirelessly to smartphones or tablets running custom software that analyse and interpret the test results.

Stanton said a prototype had been independently tested by the New Zealand Institute of Environmental and Scientific Research and was found to perform on a par with much larger laboratory-based DNA analysis systems.

''This mobility could provide a great boon for farmers.

"For instance, vets could drive around a farm analysing samples from various locations, make their diagnoses and treat infected animals - all in one trip.''

The first orders would likely be shipped this year, she said.

The device takes advantage of a technology called quantitative PCR to identify target DNA sequences in real-time, without the need for further processing.

- Otago Daily Times

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