The medical “tricorder”

With recent advances in DNA sequencing, finding the DNA of a virus or bacteria is literally a day’s work. Doctors may soon have a device that can quickly analyze and identify the common bugs that ail us.

David Broemeling is Director of Operations for UBC spinoff company Boreal Genomics.

In 2003, when the SARS virus was threatening Canada, it took B.C. researchers only a few days to fully map its DNA. Why is it then, that when we visit our doctor with flu-like symptoms, the diagnostic process is the same as it was twenty years ago?  Based on experience with our medical system, one would wonder whether the genome revolution has had any effect. After all, in the lab we can easily determine the sequence of any bug we happen to come down with. Why can’t our doctors just sequence its DNA to figure out what it is?

The reality is that DNA sequencing is having an immense impact in medical research, and in treatment of severe diseases such as cancer, but for now it is still too slow and expensive to be used routinely to figure out whether we have the flu, a common cold, or strep throat. While we know the DNA sequence of organisms that cause flu and colds, we don’t have a simple device that allows doctors to take a throat swab and determine what bug’s DNA is there. One problem is that any throat swab contains only a little bit of bug DNA, and lot of normal human DNA. Finding the bug DNA is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

This is where UBC and Boreal Genomics are hoping to change things. A spinoff from Prof. Andre Marziali’s laboratory at UBC, Boreal is developing tools to extract DNA from complicated samples. Developed from an invention by Marziali and UBC Physics professor Lorne Whitehead, Boreal’s technology can extract DNA from the dirtiest of samples, including dirt and tar.

Marziali’s team has developed the technology in multiple directions. While Boreal is already selling an instrument for researchers and forensics scientists to help clean up dirty DNA, his team of physicists and engineers are finding a way to separate bug DNA from human DNA. Coupled with a new DNA analysis technology they are developing, the team is hoping to build a device that could ultimately allow you to walk into a doctor’s office and get a quick diagnosis on whether you should be on antibiotics, or simply home in bed with a hot drink.

If these UBC scientists have their way, the day of a handheld device that can scan and analyze data—a Star Trek-like medical “Tricorder”—is not far off.