Friday, November 9, 2001 Volume 67, Issue 57


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 professor said.

Lorrie Novosad/The Daily Cougar

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 and mutation. 

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, she said.

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.

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