Goodbye central labs

 

It’s long been a widely-recognized dream of physicians and healthcare administrators to have portable blood testing capabilities in every physician’s office, rather than in central labs. The same way nurses routinely measure patient vitals such as blood pressure, oxygen saturation, heart rate, body temperature, and conduct a basic physical exam, they wish they could have patient’s blood panel results, on the spot, even before the physician walks in the exam room to begin diagnosis. A huge proportion of diagnoses can’t be determined without these results, and in our current healthcare system, this means patients have to visit a different central location for testing, and then wait days to hear back about their diagnosis and treatment.

Unfortunately, blood analyzers are just too expensive to put in physician offices. The cost would need to come down at least 20x. Additionally, there are administrative and operational costs with having a qualified lab technician, regular maintenance, reagents and bench space.

Many a company has strived to reach this holy grail. Theranos famously failed at it. Many others tried, and found some partial success, but in ways that still don’t make their devices a market fit for physician point-of-care. They’re either still too costly, or if they are portable and affordable, such as “lab on a chip” devices, measure single or only a hand-full of parameters, such as hemoglobin or white blood cell count. What physicians really need -- what makes up half of all the blood tests they order -- are CBC and CMP panels. The Complete Blood Panel is 19 parameters in one, and the Complete Metabolic Panel is 18 parameters in one.

Ashish Jagtiani, co-founder of Chronus Health, was working at the intersection of microfluidics and semiconductors at IBM when his sister, back in Mumbai, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), which is a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells. She spoke at length of how she had to spend all day at the hospital, often waiting for blood tests, day after day. At IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center based in Yorktown heights NY, Jagtiani was in involved in the development of highly specialized lab-on-chip devices, such as one that detected markers for prostate cancer. His sister asked him a question then that still echoes in his heart today: “If you can do that, something so amazing, why hasn’t anybody done that for simple, everyday blood panels?”

 Back in 2008

Back in 2008

Jagtiani teamed up with his a longtime friend and fellow bioengineering grad from the University of Akron, Anand Parikh. Parikh had launched several medical devices with FDA and CE mark approvals and recently been portfolio executive for a private equity fund. Chronus Health, their company, may be on the verge of succeeding where others have failed. Their startup was quickly selected by the world’s leading synthetic biology accelerator, IndieBio, and are now also part of the Plug & Play Health cohort. Their investors include medical professionals who see this need everyday during their own practice.

Part of what makes blood analyzers expensive is their use of optical sensors and specialized reagents. More, these systems are bulky due to the use of mechanical pumps to intricately perform sample preparation, fluid movement, measure and manipulate blood cells. Chronus has replaced optical sensors with electrical measurements and pumps with electrostatic forces. While this approach is not unique, what stands out is their capability to do this on a single cell scale. Where other technologies draw 100 volts, Chronus is below 5 volts and quickly will reach a single volt.

You might be familiar with home weight scales that use an electrical signal to measure your body fat and skeletal muscle--this is called bioimpedance. Different types of tissues impede electricity in different ways. Chronus employs a related method to determine the makeup of single cells.

Combined with reagent solutions packaged onto credit-card-size test strips, Chronus’ technology puts the equivalent of a $16,000 blood analyzer in the palm of your hand. Not only is their device inexpensive enough to put in exam rooms, Chronus can afford to give them away to doctors and hospitals for free, charging only a few dollars for each test strip.

Chronus is now running validation tests comparing their device against standard devices used in hospital labs.

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Chronus Health sees a near future where the vast majority of patients no longer have to wait days for their diagnosis and treatment to begin. Having their device in ambulances will allow physicians to begin care the moment the patient arrives at the emergency room doors. Having these devices in pharmacies, and even at home, will allow telemedicine to finally take off, because so often telemedicine is useless without basic lab results.

Chronus Health will be publicly presenting their device and technology at IndieBio’s Demo Day, on November 6th, 2018 at the Hearst Theater.