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Blood Test Speeds Up Infection Detection

An Albuquerque startup may soon gain fame for ending a century-old time warp in medical diagnostics for blood infections.

To detect infections in blood, doctors today must still wait 24 to 72 hours for labs to grow cultures — the same medical process in effect since the 1800s. But nanoMR Inc. has developed technology to detect infections and identify the type of bacteria present in blood in just two hours.

“That’s revolutionary,” said Cathy Petti, an infectious disease specialist and microbiologist who does consulting for the medical diagnostics industry. “Ever since blood cultures were first used to identify infections in the late 1800s, the technology has changed very little. That’s a major barrier to providing effective care to patients.”

Given nanoMR’s radically modernizing potential, the company has attracted $21 million in venture capital from investors since launching in 2006. That includes Dow Venture capital, vSpring Capital, and two prominent, Massachusettes-based life science firms, Excel Venture Management and Healthcare Ventures LLC.

Scientist Thearith Ung with nanoMR extracts a sample of a solution containing nano- sized magnetic beads inside the company’s physical chemistry lab.
Sun Mountain Capital, which manages the New Mexico State Investment Council’s $110 million Co-Investment Fund, has also put money into nanoMR.

“The company’s technology could save many lives and billions of dollars in medical expenses,” said Sun Mountain partner Sally Corning. “It’s potentially game-changing technology.”

The startup originally licensed its technology from the University of New Mexico, and from ABQMR Inc., an Albuquerque firm that specializes in magnetic resonance imaging. UNM and ABQMR researchers jointly developed a process to attach tiny magnetic beads to antibodies that imbed themselves in potentially infected cells. The cells are then run through a device to monitor emissions from the beads, allowing lab technicians to isolate and extract the infected cells from blood samples.

Once extracted, technicians can rapidly identify the bacteria present, allowing doctors to begin antibiotic therapies before an infection invades the bloodstream, said nanoMR President and CEO Victor Esch. That offers a critical advance in patient care, because once the infection has entered the blood stream, a process known as sepsis, it’s much more difficult and expensive to treat, and patients frequently die.

“Our process can capture pathogens from blood extremely fast, and with extremely high efficiency,” Esch said.

The ability to detect infected cells at extremely low concentrations in blood is critical to nanoMR’s technology.

“When sepsis begins, the sick cells circulate in the blood at extremely low concentrations, like one cell per milliliter or less, and even that’s enough to kill you,” Esch said. “Our technology is able to extract cells at that concentration, providing samples for bacteria identification.”

The company has conducted clinical studies since 2010 with assistance from UNM and Tricore Reference Laboratories in Albuquerque. Tricore collects human blood samples from UNM, which nanoMR uses to compare its technology with lab cultures.

“The results are very encouraging,” said Petti, who is providing consulting services to nanoMR.

Chief Science Officer Collin Dykes said the technology has also been effective in detecting rare tumor cells. In addition, apart from blood, it’s been able to identify pathogens in urine samples and food extracts.

“We’re focused on bloodstream infections now, but we’ve been asked to investigate other applications, and in doing so, the system’s universality is becoming apparent,” Dykes said. “We’re even beginning to look at it as a possible method to detect tuberculosis using sputum samples as well as blood.”

The company’s first target markets are hospitals and medical clinics that test for blood infections. Commercial sales are expected to begin in 2014, after nanoMR finishes devising a compact device to extract and identify infections in blood. It’s partnering with Stratos Product Development in Seattle, Wa., to build the device, which Esch said will be ready within six to nine months.

Sales will launch first in Europe, where it’s easier to get regulatory approval for new medical devices than in the U.S. The company has already negotiated agreements for clinical testing at five sites in Germany and France, Esch said.

While pursuing the European market, the company will simultaneously conduct clinical trials in the U.S. to achieve Food and Drug Administration approval, starting in mid-2014.

Once sales begin, nanoMR expects to hire scores of employees in Albuquerque, where it will produce all of the beads, reagents and other inputs used to test blood samples in the company’s device, Esch said. The firm moved from a cramped, 7,000-square-foot complex near the Albuquerque International Sunport last March to a 19,000-square-foot building in the industrial zone by Jefferson Street and Interstate 25. The company currently employs 28 people at the new facility, which includes 5,000 square feet of clean-room space.

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