Dr. Jian Han and his team are gearing up to launch a revolutionary diagnostic tool developed within the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. As Han explains, the iCubate system will allow for faster, more accurate diagnoses and improved, personalized treatments.
Q: iCubate was founded in 2009 as a company that provides a new diagnostic platform. Please explain what the iCubate system will do.
A: Molecular diagnosis is a catchy phrase. It means making diagnoses of diseases based on the results of studying genetic code. To do that, we need to get DNA from cells (extraction), amplify the disease- specific signature gene segments (amplification), eliminate the "background noise," and make the final diagnosis (detection). In a typical lab, these three steps (extraction, amplification and detection) are done manually or automated to a certain degree in different machines. iCubate performs all three automatically, in an enclosed system.
Q: Why is the iCubate system so important when it comes to health care?
A: In addition to automation, iCubate’s system has another key innovation: multiplex. Multiplex means we take one sample from a patient, run a single test and get multiple answers. Respiratory infection, for example, usually is caused by some 30 different bacteria or viruses. The symptoms are the same or similar. Physicians, looking at the clinical presentation, would not really know what is actually causing the diseases. With the iCubate multiplex assay, we can study all relevant pathogens in one test, automatically, in a few hours.
The clinical benefit is huge: With an accurate diagnosis, a patient can be put on the right medicine. If it is a public health crisis like SARS or avian flu, we would know who should be isolated and treated; if it is a bio-threat, we would know what pathogen may be involved.
Treating without knowing the real cause is the reason for many of our health care problems, from higher costs to lawsuits.
Q: What is the development status of iCubate?
A: Thanks to the outstanding local engineering talent pool, we were able to develop the machine in record time. We now have a functional instrument — not just a prototype — running real assays. We have done all that in a little over a year.
Q: Who will ultimately use these cassettes?
A: Hospitals, research labs, urgent care centers and doctor’s offices.
Q: What does your process tell us about the growing value of studying and better understanding DNA?
A: The Human Genome Project and related technological advances made everything we do possible. We design assays based on DNA sequences in the GenBank, sequences deposited for free by researchers worldwide. It was because of that we were able to develop an H1N1 test in three days, and put it to clinical use in just 10 days.
Q: You made local and national headlines a year ago when you developed a diagnostic test for H1N1 at the height of the pandemic. That experience was the first to demonstrate the remarkable power of collaboration here at HudsonAlpha. Please elaborate.
A: It is a team effort. For our routine technology development, I work with at least four companies within this building, including Conversant, Diatherix, Microarrays and iXpressGenes. We have tremendous synergy here and we use it to the maximum. The design concept of the institute building works, as most of these collaborations start with a conversation in the hallway, near the elevators or down at the cafe.
Q: How is the iCubate team poised for success?
A: What makes us different is that we work for customers and develop products we know the market needs and wants. We are not developing something to write a paper or receive a grant. In our day-to-day work, we keep asking, "What do our customers want?" We have potential customers in mind and we work hard to satisfy these customers.
Q: How did you originally wind up in Huntsville and HudsonAlpha?
A: After we sold our previous company, Genaco, Jim Hudson invited me to work in HudsonAlpha. I became the first investigator on board, before the building was finished.
Q: You have worked all over the world, conducting research in some of the most advanced labs. How does HudsonAlpha compare? What does it mean for biotech growth in the Rocket City?
A: I like the slogan for Huntsville: "The sky is not the limit." Here, people know how "big" things can be and they are not scared of it. We do not ask why, we just ask when.