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GeneWeave Turns Bacteria Against Themselves

By Ted Boscia

Two Cornell doctoral students have developed a technology that turns bacterial viruses into informants, tapping them to analyze blood and mucus samples rapidly and inexpensively for infectious superbugs like MRSA and other toxic bacteria. What's more, the device, which is similar in appearance to a home pregnancy test, requires no electricity, allowing it to be transported into rural and underserved areas around the globe. The kit, to be marketed as MicroPhast, requires no special training, eliminating the need for expensive lab equipment and hospital space.

Leonard Teixeira, right, and Diego Rey are
co-creators of a handheld kit to detect bacteria.
Leonard Teixeira, right, and Diego Rey are co-creators of a handheld kit to detect bacteria.

"Because of the simplicity of our kit, it can be used in hospitals for detection of infectious diseases but also in remote locations and rural areas," says Leonardo Teixeira, a microbiology doctoral student in CALS and co-creator of the technology.

Teixeira and PhD student Diego Rey began developing the technology in 2007 while taking Entrepreneurship for Scientists and Engineers, a course in which they started a project to develop a fast, reliable, and low-cost method for diagnosing tuberculosis, a crippling disease in many developing countries. They kept working on the invention after the class and later patented it under a startup named GeneWeave Biosciences, with assistance from the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise, and Commercialization. In 2008, Jason Springs, MBA '09, joined the company as CEO and has since sought to create a business plan, market the technology, and line up investors.

The product works by deploying engineered phages—viruses that only infect bacteria—to analyze bodily fluids for the genetic markers of bacteria.

The test could be sold for $10—a significant reduction from existing methods that require skilled technicians and high-priced equipment. In the case of an outbreak, responders could quickly test patients and quarantine those with the potential to spread disease. In theory, the kits will work for any bacteria, although GeneWeave is currently focused on creating a test for MRSA, a hardy and sometimes fatal bacteria that is prevalent in hospitals, schools, and other confined areas, and tuberculosis. The company hopes to build a prototype within 18 months and, with FDA approval, release the kits within three years.