When facing an outbreak of an infectious disease like Zika, influenza or Ebola, early detection and isolation of the virus is critical. A new Penn State startup is working to tackle this challenge with truly remarkable technology.
As a viral outbreak begins to spread, those with recent infections may not yet show symptoms, and unknowingly spread the disease. Adding to this challenge, the concentration of viruses in early field samples can be quite low, making virus identification expensive, slow, or dependent on large-scale medical equipment.
Enter Virolock Technologies, LLC.
A team of interdisciplinary Penn State researchers in physics, chemistry, materials science and biomedical engineering have developed an extremely promising, portable technology that could increase the threshold for early virus detection and speed up identification of new viruses from field samples.
“The device allows us to selectively trap and concentrate viruses by their size — smaller than human cells and bacteria, but larger than most proteins and other macromolecules — in incredibly dilute samples,” notes Mauricio Terrones, professor of physics, chemistry and materials science in the Eberly College of Science. “It further increases our ability to detect small amounts of a virus by more than 600 times.”
Recognizing the potential magnitude of the technology, the new startup, led by Terrones and Penn State biomedical researchers Yin-Ting “Tim” Yeh and Nestor Perea-Lopez, was recently awarded $75,000 from the Fund for Innovation to jumpstart the growth of their business. Virolock is one of 7 emerging Penn State technologies to earn the Jump Start funding since it began in 2015.
The Virolock technology uses a forest-like array of vertically-aligned carbon nanotubes that can be fine-tuned to a variety of viruses based on their size. Terrones, together with Yeh, Perea-Lopez and Si-Yang Zheng, associate professor in the College of Engineering, developed the tool through intensive research, and see the device as a valuable opportunity to more aggressively combat the spread of disease. The company expects to manufacture custom-made cartridges to target specific viruses. Virolock believes the technology will expedite vaccine development and virus discovery because its technology does not require existing antibodies — unlike other technologies.
After receiving an initial Lab Bench to Commercialization grant from the Fund for Innovation and the Eberly College of Science, the team consulted with the Office of Technology Management on patenting and licensing the intellectual property. They were able to utilize the Fund for Innovation’s partnership with Smeal College of Business MBA students for relevance work and, later in the process, Smeal’s APEX Program that provides go-to-market planning. Finally, they completed the TechCelerator @ State College, an 8-week boot camp that readies new ventures for launch. Not only did that experience help to refine their business plan, but also it provided them with a $10,000 award to help them advance their concept. Each of these programs, supported by the Invent Penn State initiative, has helped to nurture the new startup and advance the research-born technology toward having commercial value.
“We are scientists,” said Terrones. “We realized that when you want to start a business, the science part is important, but it’s not only the science that drives the company — you also need someone driving the business. For us, it was a different world.”
Virolock plans to use their $75,000 jumpstart funding to set up a new lab space, potentially in partnership with Innovation Park, and to continue to refine the manufacturing process of their disposable cartridges. The USDA has already validated their product for diagnosis of plum pox, and the company hopes forthcoming research may validate additional viruses, including Avian influenza.
“This could have major impacts on the way we detect and manage viral outbreaks across the globe. The technology could help medical personnel to develop vaccines in a more timely way, and lead to saving countless lives,” says Terrones. “We are excited to bring this technology forward, and to take the next step with Virolock, LLC.”