OTC News Archive

University of Texas to tout HIV-testing technology that’s ready for market

by Robert Elder, Jr., Austin American-Statesman
October 2, 2003

With a promise of support from two big foundations focused on global health, The University of Texas and Massachusetts General Hospital are launching an effort to market a microchip-powered device that can quickly and inexpensively test for diseases such as HIV.

The partnership will be announced today at UT’s “Ready to Commercialize” conference, which runs from 12:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, 10100 Burnet Road. The conference, which costs $45 to attend, is the strongest-ever showcase for UT-originated technologies that are available for licensing.

About 250 venture capitalists, other investors and technology executives are expected at the conference. The gathering is the most recent example of the university’s newly aggressive Office of Technology Commercialization, led by veteran technology executive Neil Iscoe. UT is trying to ramp up its efforts on transforming university research into marketable products, which would increase the amount of licensing revenue for the university and professors.

The disease detection device, or biosensor, is based on an array of microchip sensors developed by University of Texas chemistry professor John McDevitt. The chips collect and analyze key immune cells, and the results are read by a device about the size of a personal digital assistant.

In tests in Botswana last spring, the device identified the level of CD4 white blood cells in people in less than 10 minutes. These cells are targeted by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The device’s usefulness in identifying HIV attracted the philanthropic foundation of Microsoft magnate Bill Gates, which has heavily funded AIDS-related research and treatment in Africa. At a Seattle biotechnology conference in May, Richard Klausner, the director of global health for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said the foundation would contribute $1 million to the UT–Mass General project, according to a person at the conference.

Klausner could not be reached for comment.

Iscoe declined to comment on anything to do with the Gates Foundation’s involvement with the project. Neither would UT’s McDevitt, who said only that four large foundations are “extremely interested” in the technology and that discussions are ongoing.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has told the project’s leaders that they will receive a $200,000 grant given to promising health sciences investigators.

The device could revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases in the field. Instead of sending tests to a laboratory and waiting days for results, the device allows field workers to accurately determine the level of infection in a person and, thus, the best course of treatment.

“It’s a lab-in-a-chip technology” as accurate as the current standard in the field—costly, refrigerator-sized devices, McDevitt said.

The Gates Foundation has poured millions of dollars into HIV programs in Africa. South Africa, which the Gateses visited last month to draw attention to malaria and AIDS, is the next place the UT–Mass General project will use the device, among persons with HIV.

The project isn’t yet seeking corporate money, said Frances Toneguzzo, director of corporate-sponsored research and licensing for Mass General. The reason: the partners don’t want to jeopardize their main goal of putting the device to use, at low cost, in impoverished nations afflicted by huge numbers of deaths from AIDS.

“We want to make sure there is no compromise along those lines,” Toneguzzo said about the possible distraction of a corporate link at this time.

At some point, Toneguzzo and UT officials agree, the project’s organizers likely will work closely with an existing business or launch a startup of their own. “We envision we will need a company to implement a commercialization plan” for the device, Toneguzzo said.

UT’s McDevitt said there is “a tremendous amount of interest” from the private sector.

“We’re not worried about being able to support this financially.”