In a Forbes article, Kevin Hrusovsky, CEO of Quanterix is quoted making a distinction between “healthcare” and “sick care.” His point is that in most cases, we wait until a patient gets sick — showing symptoms — and then test to determine the cause. He cites the example of testing for the protein troponin to determine whether or not a patient has just had a heart attack. The levels of this biomarker are very high after a heart attack and is relatively easy to detect. Quanterix researchers believe that it is more helpful to detect troponin in patients who appear to be healthy, to allow early detection and treatment of heart damage. Thus the difference between healthcare and “sick care.”
In order to for this to work, however, we need a technology that can detect minute amounts of a protein, at levels 1,000 to 10,000 times lower than found by current test methods. The system must be fast and inexpensive. And it has to be able to detect thousands of different biomarker proteins. Quanterix has developed a system that they believe meets these requirements, called Simoa. The system works by using nano-sized magnetic beads. The beads are coated with antibodies specific to the target protein. If a protein is captured by the bead, another antibody with a fluorescent component attaches itself to the protein. The beads are then drawn into a substrate with tiny wells, each just large enough for a single bead. Excess beads are washed off and the substrate is coated with a layer of oil, and then the fluorescent molecules are activated. The resulting light emissions can be accurately and quickly detected.
Only a tiny blood sample is required to test for hundreds of biomarkers, as few molecules are needed to produce a reading. The entire process can be automated for speed and accuracy. The system has the potential to revolutionize how we detect and treat disease and other conditions, with the potential for more effective approaches and better outcomes at lower cost. The part of this system that I find particularly interesting is that at some point in the future, the entire system could be built in a “lab on a chip” that could be embedded under your skin, and provide a full-time watch for certain biomarkers that could signal a potentially dangerous condition before it becomes a difficult problem.