March 15, 2004
Saliva-driven technology eases DNA sampling
By Scott Foster, Ottawa Business Journal Staff
Mon, Mar 15, 2004 12:00 AM EST
After years of beta trials, an Ottawa startup has distributed its saliva collection kits to hundreds of DNA-collecting scientists around the world.
The hope is that DNA Genotek's Oragene•DNA (which combines the words "oral" and "genetic") will allow molecular epidemiologists, or bio-prospectors, to better collect DNA samples from large cross-sections of the human population.
The saliva-driven technology, which will be shown to potential investors at the upcoming OCRI Showcase, is expected to solve a common problem encountered by scientists trying to find genetic links to deadly diseases.
These scientists have taken samples from large homogenous groups in isolated areas within Iceland, the South Pacific island nation of Tonga and Newfoundland. DNA collectors favour such populations because they have unique genetic predispositions to certain diseases, explains DNA Genotek president Dr. Chaim Birnboim.
But there are many logistical challenges involved in these collection efforts, some of which involve hundreds of thousands of participants, he adds.
Often, DNA collectors extract blood from participants, but it is difficult to round up hundreds of thousands of people and get them in front of trained personnel with the right equipment, says Toby Shannan, the firm's vice-president of sales and marketing. Also, participants may object to getting prodded with a needle, he adds.
"And then there's refrigeration costs and storage costs."
The Oragene•DNA kit can be mailed to participants, who spit two millilitres of saliva into a vile. Once the vile is capped, a solution mixes with the saliva to preserve the DNA sample. Tests reveal the sample can withstand temperatures of 50 C for six months or room temperature for a year. The company could push the product's parameters farther, but would rather get it on the market than conduct a longer study.
"We don't have all the time in the world here, but we know the samples can be mailed back," Birnboim says.
Ken Lawless, president of the Ottawa Life Sciences Council, says providers of DNA samples would probably favour the solution because it's non-invasive.
The company should focus on "expanding the number and breadth of the (product's) applications to make it more attractive for capital", Lawless says.
Other applications include the preservation of DNA among family members, Birnboim says. While it's not one of the firm's immediate goals to address this market, Birnboim predicts "responsible" people would be interested.
"(Currently), there are many projects where people are keeping DNA samples of children in case, God forbid, one goes astray," he says. Such samples can be used to identify bodies.
Other people have approached DNA Genotek because they have family members with cancer, adds Birnboim.
"As part of their family tree, they want as many DNA samples as possible. Just having those samples now or in the future may give you a better idea of the genetic basis for it. Just having those samples on hand is what we think a lot of responsible people will be doing."
DNA Genotek expects to put most of its energy into Oragene•DNA because it represents the most immediate market, says Shannan. The company no longer features GenoFix, although it still holds a patent on the solution that preserves DNA from biopsy tissue.
The company is currently closing a seed round with Canadian angels, the first funding from outside investors. In 2002, the company closed a friends-and-family round for an undisclosed amount of money.
The company began talking to the angel investment community in September 2001. That same month, the Journal of Forensic Sciences published an article about GenoFix written by Birnboim and scientists at the RCMP's National DNA Data Bank in Ottawa. Birnboim is currently preparing an article about Oragene•DNA for a scientific publication.