A Wellington-based start-up is poised to disrupt a $40 billion antibodies industry by creating a faster, cheaper and humane way of testing for substances.

It all comes down to aptamers, short strands of DNA which can mimic the action of antibodies traditionally used for testing.

AuramerBio, a biotech company spun out of the MacDiarmid Institute, is about to field trial their first biosensing product. Their handheld device can be used roadside, in workplaces or in hospital triages to tests for recreational drugs.

In just three minutes a saliva sample can identify if you have taken any of six different recreational drugs. Unlike traditional roadside testing units, AuramerBio’s device can detect the levels of drugs in saliva, not just the presence.

The technology and device have applications beyond detecting recreational drugs. It’s conceivable in the future doctors might be able to test patients’ saliva for issues, during a consult and get instant results – all without the need for needles.

AuramerBio CEO Shalen Kumar, said the company is currently working on solutions utilising the same technology for fertility and environmental pollutant testing.

How aptamers work

Aptamers are likely to shake up an antibodies industry which some think has reached the limits of its science and usually comes at the cost of animals’ lives.

“An antibody is produced by immunising an organism [animal], that immune response recognises it and you sacrifice the animal and purify the proteins from the spleen. That’s traditional antibody making. Nothing can survive without a spleen unfortunately,” said Kumar.

Aptamers are like a tiny antibody. They are short strands of synthetic DNA. Unlike antibodies they don’t need to be extracted from an animal and can be produced quickly and cheaply in a laboratory.

Antibodies can take 12 to 18 months to develop in the laboratory.

“For us to get to an equivalent point, it takes less than a month. This is going to revolutionise the way medical professionals diagnose and monitor the health of their patients.”

Once an aptamer is engineered it can be reproduced many times over, without the batch-to-batch variation which can occur with antibody production. This ease of production has the potential to slash the cost of diagnostic tests. Aptamers also target smaller molecules than antibodies normally can, and have a greater sensitivity to the molecule, giving more accurate results.

Kumar uses an analogy of spaghetti and meatballs to describe how aptamers are attracted to proteins. Each aptamer is like a strand of spaghetti programmed to wrap around certain type of meatball. When the combination is right, the strand of spaghetti wraps around the meatball.

In practice, AuramerBio’s solution puts the aptamers on an electrode surface, and when the “meatballs” touches them the level of electron movement is recorded by a portable testing device. This information is then displayed on an app.

He said when the company started they were focused on creating a tool to test buildings for methamphetamine contamination.

The company changed tack after Sir Peter Gluckman’s report on methamphetamine testing was released. Overnight the envisaged market for the product vanished.

The team decided to take what they had developed and expand on it to focus on roadside drug testing for a range of drugs. At present the device can test for methamphetamine, opiates, cocaine, MDMA, cannabinoids and benzodiazepines.

Currently results for roadside saliva tests for drugs take five minutes. AuramerBio’s device cuts the time down to three minutes and can test for a variety of substances. It can also report on the levels of the substance found, rather than just its presence.

Due to the speed aptamers can be developed, there’s also the ability to keep up with changing formulations of drugs. AuramerBio is working on an aptamer for synthetic cannabis.

“For synthetic cannabis, we can change it every three months, or six months for a new version of the drug. The beauty of this is we keep the same device, the only thing we are changing is the strip with aptamers for whatever you want to target.”

The prototype device is due to be trailed by the New Zealand Police in March either roadside or in holding cells. The design of the testing device is being refined after feedback on its robustness in the field and ability to withstand rough handling said Kumar.

He expects the drug testing device will be ready for market December 2019. 

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