Atlas Genetics

BioApproaches Case Study – Atlas Genetics
The Need for Speed
Rapid diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases can have a significant impact on
recovery rates and prevent the need for more costly long-term treatment. Now, a spinout company from the University of Bath, is pioneering a method of DNA testing that
will deliver diagnosis within minutes at the point of care and could vastly improve the
effectiveness of treatment for a range of different diseases.
Atlas Genetics is a collaboration between three leading academics at the University of
Bath Department of Chemistry and a Boston-based diagnostic company called
Osmetech. Formed in 2005, Atlas Genetics was set up to develop an electrochemical
approach to diagnosis using DNA bioinformatics.
Taking blood glucose testing for diabetes as a model, Atlas Genetics is pioneering a
method of DNA testing that uses a disposable card, a little larger than a credit card,
and a portable card reader. A sample is taken from the patient (blood, urine or a swab)
and this is transferred onto the card using a dropper. This initiates a three-part
chemical process. Initially, DNA is extracted from all the cells in the sample and it is
purified. Next, DNA from the infectious agent unique to this pathogen is copied and
amplified. Finally, simple electrodes are used to detect if a particular piece of DNA is
present. This enables the card reader to detect which pathogens are present and
thereby identify the particular disease.
Rather than waiting for days or weeks for test results to come back from the lab,
individual patients can be diagnosed at the GP’s surgery or clinic within minutes and,
if necessary, a course of treatment begun immediately. The scope for human error or
misinterpretation is greatly reduced as the test is wholly based on a chemical reaction
and results interpreted by the card reader. Each test provides a simple yes/no answer
or instructs the clinician to repeat the test if the response is unclear.
Dr John Clarkson is chief executive of Atlas Genetics. He explains: “In the case of
certain diseases, an immediate diagnosis is crucial. For example, during childbirth
some babies can become infected by Group B Strep (GBS), a vaginal colonisation that
can be passed from mother to child. The bacteria can cause meningitis and sepsis and
is often fatal. In the US, expectant mothers are routinely tested for the bacteria during
antenatal sessions. However, not all pregnant women attend antenatal sessions –
particularly those from lower incomes – and some women go into labour before they
have been tested. In addition, a woman who returns a negative test at 35 weeks can go
on to develop the disease at full-term. By testing for GBS when a woman goes into
labour, it is possible to identify carriers of the disease with absolute certainty and, if
necessary, to begin a course of intravenous antibiotics which could save the life of the
unborn child.”
He explains that Chlamydia testing is another area that would benefit from the
immediacy of DNA testing. “Around 12% of young people under-25 are infected with
Chlamydia. Although early symptoms are relatively minor, Chlamydia can go on to
cause pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility. Often, the full impact of the disease
is not realised until much later in life when people begin trying for a family and the
emotional effects to the individual, and costs to the NHS can be huge. At present,
urine or swab samples can be collected at GP surgeries and clinics and then sent off
the local hospital for testing, however, it is notoriously difficult to get young people
who are infected with the disease back into the surgery for treatment. It would be far
more effective if the young person could wait for the results of the test and then begin
a course of treatment, where appropriate. That is what the new system will deliver.”
The new DNA testing system has just completed feasibility testing and is due to begin
preliminary clinical evaluation in 2009.
It was the University of Bath Technology Transfer Group that helped to bring about
the commercialisation of this groundbreaking technology - just one of a number of
regional support organisations that have helped to drive the development of Atlas
Genetics. “We received investment from the South West Ventures Fund and the South
West Growth Fund,” comments John, “and we also attracted investment from the
South West Angel Investor Network (SWAIN) and the Sulis Fund, which invests in
regional university spin-outs. In total we have raised around £3m. BioApproaches, the
networking and support organisation for biotechnologies, has been a useful source of
information and has helped us to forge local links, such as a contract chemical
synthesis company to whom we could outsource part of the process. The South West
of England has played a crucial role in our development to date.”
“Ultimately, the product is likely to be manufactured outside the region, however, the
R&D capability will remain here in the South West. We have excellent links with the
region’s universities and we are within a knowledge triangle that includes the Health
Protection Agency and other leading life science organisations. We have had no
problem in attracting first choice candidates for all our key positions as this is an
attractive part of the world and people are happy to come here.”