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British biotech startup turns to crowdfunding to eliminate malaria

A British biotechnology startup is developing a hand-held diagnostic device that it claims can help eradicate malaria.

The Newcastle-based company, QuantuMDx, is the brainchild of molecular biologist Jonathan O’Halloran. He got the idea over a decade ago when he invented a new DNA sequencing device in his garage.

With a small team of researchers, O’Halloran has spent several years building a device that health care workers can use to rapidly analyze a blood sample and provide a malaria diagnosis and screening for drug resistance in approximately 15 minutes. The device reads and sequences DNA and converts it into binary code using a tiny computer chip.

The malaria test

The malaria test requires just a pinprick’s worth of blood.

The problem that QuantuMDx is tackling is drug resistance. Malarial parasites in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have mutated and become resistant to artemisinins, the most commonly used class of anti-malarial drugs. Malaria kills about 800,000 people each year.

QuantuMDx’s test and lab requires a pinprick’s worth of blood from the finger of each patient. A filter removes cellular debris and separates the malarial DNA. It can then suggest the optimal course of treatment for each patient.

This initial product is known as the Q-POC, and it’s available for a fraction of the price of a state of the art laboratory, the company claims on its website. Q-POC is a good fit for rural areas; it requires no running water or stable electricity. The company intends to sell its device in regions lacking health care and infrastructure, such as areas in Africa or India.

To raise the requisite funds to bring its test from the lab to the field, QuantuMDx has turned to crowdfunding site Indiegogo. According to a news release, the company will launch a campaign on Feb. 12 to drive the technology through clinical trials.

“Crowdfunding to support development and clinical trials of our tech allows our supporters to be involved, even if they don’t have a spare million in the bank,” said Maggie Love, the company’s business development lead. “We’re developing our tech to provide diagnostics for all, it seemed natural that it be funded by all.”

For more information about this campaign, watch the trailer at the bottom of this post.

Malaria is just the beginning. QuantuMDx is also working with partners to test for tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, and cardiovascular diseases.

Last September, QuantuMDx announced it had joined a consortium of research organizations to develop mobile technology to improve malaria diagnosis and treatment. Researchers at St. George’s University of London and the University of Tuebingen in Germany, among others, contributed to the research, and the group raised just over $6.7 million in funding (the majority was provided by the European Commission). The company has also raised large grants from The U.K.’s Technology Strategy Board, The Biomedical Catalyst Fund, and the National Health Service.

QuantuMDx’s chief executive Elaine Warburton hopes to commercialize the malaria test and handheld lab in 2015.