Diagnostics is about prevention


Sundaresh Brahmasandra, VP, NeoMoDx, a Qiagen company

Ann Arbor-based NeuMoDx™ Molecular Systems (a QIAGEN company) has been awarded the Startup Innovator Award by the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA). NeuMoDx is a family of scalable platforms that fully integrate the entire molecular diagnostic process from “sample to result.” Fast Future spoke with Sundaresh Brahmasandra, NeuMoDx’s VP, and head of AA operations and product development about the tech behind what they do.

Tell us about the company?

Brahmasandra: We develop a molecular diagnostic platform. By that I mean we develop instruments that enable very rapid testing of real-time PCR-based diagnostics. To go along with the instruments, to power it essentially, we develop customized microfluidic cartridges that help process all of the liquids and the samples. They’re like fancy test tubes.

We also make all of the chemicals and reagents required to run these tests. In a sense, NeuMoDx is basically an integrated company that provides complete molecular diagnostic solutions. Of course, like many molecular diagnostic companies last year, we started working on COVID-based testing solutions in February of 2020, as soon as it was pretty apparent that this was not your usual flu.

We were one of the first companies to obtain emergency use authorization. From that time on, it’s been incredible from a business perspective and from employee satisfaction and everything else, because now we are for once, as a diagnostic company, we are actually part of a great solution to the problem we’re having.

Can you define for me exactly what you mean by molecular diagnostic solution?

Brahmasandra: In diagnostics, you’re either looking for the DNA or the RNA piece of the infectious agent, or you’re looking for some other protein or chemical that is a signature of that infection or disease status. By molecular, the most common definition is that you’re looking not necessarily at the protein or the chemicals that come later, but more at the DNA or RNA signature right at the heart of the infection or the disease state.

We take a swab sample, for example for COVID, and it goes into a little tube, and the user basically loads that tube directly onto the system. At that point, the system then takes over and does what it has to do.

In your nasal swab, there’s all sorts of stuff – your normal human cells that come from the nose, as well as the viral particles. We have to extract the RNA of this viral particle and then go through an amplification process where we may have only 10 or 100 of these particles, and it’s really hard to detect them at that point.

So we go through an amplification process called PCR, polymerase chain reaction, and it takes this piece of the RNA and looks for unique sections in this RNA that are unique to the COVID-19 virus, for example. If you’re designing a test for HIV, you would do the same thing and look for something that’s unique to the HIV virus. Then we multiply that particular section a billion or a trillion times so that we can now measure this amplified signal compared to the very low starting signal.

RNA became a topic as the CovId vaccines were being developed.

Brahmasandra: The vaccine is mimicking the virus. It’s putting in a piece of the RNA that makes the body think that the virus is there. All that RNA is doing is producing a protein that is usually on the surface of this virus. Instead of the virus being there, it’s just that protein there in your cells now, and that triggers your immune system to say, “Oh that protein is there, hence that virus must be there, and so it now triggers your immune system to go and attack it. That’s how those works.

What is the NVCA Startup Innovator Award?

Brahmasandra: The NVCA is the premier venture capital association in the United States. NeuMoDx was initiated by a venture fund out of Ann Arbor called Arboretum Ventures which specializes in med-tech and devices and drugs.

Arboretum actually nominated us this year for this award. As part of that process, I talked to the NVCA and gave them the spiel on what we do and how we have been a critical part of the COVID solution. We were always unique and different and we were making a huge advancement in molecular diagnostics.

The COVID crisis obviously amplified or put a spotlight on the whole diagnostics industry. Solutions like ours, where we could run lots and lots of samples in a day, without any training required, became very important.

The system is unique in that it can run a lot of samples. One instrument can run up to 600 samples in a 24-hour shift. At the same time, if there was an emergency sample that came in, we could get the results for those emergency samples in 80 minutes. So it met both the needs, urgent testing for a rapid solution, or if I need lots of testing, it can be a high-volume solution. This unique proposition made it a very attractive solution, especially in the COVID timeframe. So we were nominated as part of that, and that’s how we were chosen out of the field for this award.

COVID has affected the industry in different ways

Brahmasandra: Absolutely. If you look at the overall state of diagnostics providers, this has been our constant beef, right? Diagnostics is about prevention, but we get about maybe three to five percent of the healthcare love, whereas a lot of the money goes toward treatment, which is actually too far down the road sometimes.

If we can help prevent it up front, I think that costs can be much lower. Definitely this has highlighted the importance of having rapid tools for diagnosis. It’s unfortunate it took a pandemic to do it, but at least it’s something.