DNA biochips have great
potential for UH spin-off company
By Tim Williams
Daily Cougar Staff
A novel manufacturing process could make
one UH spin-off company the "Intel of the biochip market," a UH biochemistry
Lorrie Novosad/The Daily
UH biochemistry professor
Xiaolian Gao holds one of the "biochips" she and her colleagues developed.
Using a computer-linked light projector,
Professor Xiaolian Gao and her colleagues cause chemical reactions on the
surface of thumbnail-sized chips. The
reactions build, layer by layer, strands
of DNA capable of detecting an individual's genetic predisposition to disease
The DNA strands act as probes, attracting
comparable genetic code from samples processed by the biochip, Gao said.
"It can be used to analyze (materials like)
nucleic acids and proteins, while other technology can only allow analysis
of one thing at a time," she said.
There are two holes in the chip, one through
which an extracted DNA solution can enter and another through which it
exits. Between the holes are straight
scratch lines running diagonally across
the chip's surface, acting as channels through which the solution to passes.
There are about 20,000 probes per
chip passing DNA can attach to if the
genetic codes match up.
The number of probes per chip is high to
account for redundant tests medical researchers run to verify results,
Gao said. A chip used for future diagnostic
applications, like those in a doctor's
office, would need fewer probes, she said.
The ability of the UH spin-off company,
Xeotron, to fit a variety of needs with a chip built in "a matter of hours"
means the company has an edge over
competitors, Gao said.
"We can do it in a very short amount of
time and we can do anything you want," she said. "It takes a lot of money
and a lot of time for others to make one
Competitors' manufacturing processes aren't
as effective because they are "homemade" solutions, she said.
"In the end you've got to have a process
that is highly automated, highly parallel and miniaturized," she said.
"It is like the computer industry in the
early 1960s. When a new thing came out, there were always many different
formats," she said.
"In the end it's going to be whichever
can be automated and very, very reproducible," she said.
"Probe design has a lot of art to it —
how long, what sequence you choose," Gao said. "There are a lot of things
in there to say that this probe doesn't work."
When researchers find those problems, Xeotron
can construct a chip with revisions which researchers simply e-mail in,
Xeotron is a collaboration between Gao
and University of Michigan faculty members Xiaochuan Zhou and Erdogan Gulari.
Michigan and UH jointly own
the rights to the biochip, but have licensed
it exclusively to Xeotron for production.
The Houston company benefited at least
two current and three former UH students by providing them jobs, Gao said.
UH could have a big payday when the chip
goes to wider production in about three years, causing a portion of the
sales to return to the technology's
Sales of the biochip could ultimately approach
several billion dollars, she said.
Critics of the technology might point to
its invasive nature of assessing one's current and future medical conditions,
and the possibility that it could create
liabilities for anyone looking to be hired
or purchase health insurance.
When asked about the ethical concerns about
developing a technology that could be misused by employers and insurance
providers, Gao said the
personal medical information the chip
garners needs to be protected by law.
"How things work, that's my interest,"
she said. Policymakers will have to understand where technology is taking
us and develop adequate regulations for
its use, she said.