Biotech Meets Cleantech: GenVault Aims to Deep Six the Laboratory Deep Freeze

11/18/09

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the products work: a sample is placed on the storage material and allowed to dry. When researchers want to examine the sample, they separate it from the storage material using a reagent (in the case of paper) or water (for the matrix). All samples are identified with a unique DNA “barcode” than can be tracked with proprietary software. Both products preserve samples at ambient tempertures.

In addition, the company is testing a sponge-like collection device that can be used in epidemiological research or field studies. In one test now underway, an academic research group studying the spread of HIV is using the device to collect blood samples in remote African villages, where electricity is not available. In another test, researchers are using the device to collect blood samples from ailing birds in New Guinea.

Many of GenVaults customers are academic or government research centers. However, Wellis believes the thousands of routine clinical tests performed at doctors’ offices daily may provide the company with its best business opportunity. “There is a lot of sample movement from doctors’ offices to labs,” he said.

However, GenVault isn’t the only company eyeing this market. Biomatrica, another San Diego-based startup, has developed a technology that “shrink wraps” samples to preserve them at room temperature. Another competitor is Qiagen, a publicly traded Dutch company with about $900 million in annual sales. But Wellis says his company’s biggest competition is the status quo and a belief that “colder is better.” To overcome that chilling effect, GenVault must convince potential customers that its products save money and preserve samples at least as well as cold storage—for years, if necessary.

So far, GenVault has used its reagents to recover 20-year-old DNA from blood spots on neonatal screening cards maintained by the state of California. By using high temperatures to accelerate the aging process, GenVault has shown the mineral matrix can preserve DNA for the equivalent of 29 years. While that simulation is good enough for some researchers, others want to see how long samples remain viable under real-world conditions. To date, GenVault has demonstrated the mineral matrix can preserve samples for 1½ years at room temperature.

GenVault says its systems are cheaper to use than freezers. Its desktop system, for example, costs around $1,200 compared to $15,000 for a freezer capable of storing an equivalent number of samples. The company estimates the electric bill for keeping the freezer going comes to $1,000 annually. There’s no difference in the cost of supplies, Wellis says. “In our system, you would purchase our plates/tubes, in a freezer system, you would purchase tubes and boxes, so both have a similar consumable cost,” he said in an email.

The company’s technology isn’t suitable for living cells, which break apart when they come into contact with the storage materials. Wellis says finding an alternative to the freezer for living cells is high on the company’s to-do list. “Cells are the toughest nut,” he said. So researchers can’t turn a cold shoulder to cold storage just yet.

Denise Gellene is a former Los Angeles Times science writer and regular contributor to Xconomy. You can reach her at dgellene@xconomy.com Follow @

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