The miniPCR brings DNA testing to the masses

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the miniPCR will now be available for classrooms Photo: via Ampylus
After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the miniPCR will now be available for classrooms Photo: via Ampylus

When Sebastian Kraves and Ezequiel “Zeke” Alvarez-Saavedra were growing up in Argentina, the science labs in their high school classrooms had only the most basic equipment. But the tools at their disposal were enough to spark an interest in biology that eventually led them both to Boston: Kraves received his doctorate in neurobiology from Harvard, while Alvarez-Saavedra took home a PhD in biology from MIT.

Together, the pair have combined their experience to launch Amplyus, a startup that will help a new generation better understand themselves through their DNA. They’ve created a device called the miniPCR, a low-cost, portable DNA analysis kit that can be programmed from a smartphone or tablet and used in classrooms and the developing world.

The kits cost only $750, and today is final day of their successful Kickstarter campaign. After a huge spike in interest, Kraves and Alvarez-Saavedra have raised over $67,000, far surpassing their original $20,000 goal. The duo said they’ll soon begin manufacturing their devices in collaboration from Matkim Industries, a company in Oxford, Mass.

Why is there a need for such a kit in the first place? Simple: DNA analysis — the method by which DNA samples are processed — is expensive. The typical analysis tools in used in biotech or crime laboratories can cost between $3,000 and $10,000. That high cost has created a barrier, said Alvarez-Saavedra. While students would learn the basic principles of DNA in school — the story of Watson and Crick and the double helix — they never were able to take a hands-on approach as they would in a chemistry or physics class.

“This has been outside of the realm of education,” Alvarez-Saavedra said. “We live in a society where every kid needs to be scientifically literate, whether they’re reading about a person getting convicted by DNA evidence or about GMOs in food.”

“We wanted to allow every kid and every researcher to lay their hands on this technology,” said Kraves.

Using the desktop device, researchers or students can add DNA material from a swab, see it copied in the instrument, and then visualize the results on the tablet. So far, over a dozen area schools are testing the kits in their classrooms (or have one of the kits on order), including the Codman Academy Public Charter School in Dorchester. With the curriculum developed for the devices, Kraves said, students can learn how DNA evidence is used in court through a simulated crime lab or study the public health implications of using DNA track E. coli or other disease outbreaks.

Since they launched their Kickstarter, Kraves and Alvarez-Saavedra have found tremendous support from the biotech community. They were accepted to the MassChallenge incubator and are currently in talks with many Boston institutions about bringing miniPCR technology into their labs.

Kraves and Alvarez-Saavedra have also seen a huge international interest in the kits and have already provided a miniPCR to researchers in Haiti working on water safety detection efforts. “This is essentially the technology that you’d need to put in every rural clinic in Africa to detect malaria,” Alvarez-Saavedra said. Now, with the success of their Kickstarter, they can make it happen.

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.
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