Business in Vancouver: UBC biotech spinoff digging deep into DNA

Curt Cherewayko, Business in Vancouver

Boreal Genomics closes $6.9m financing, sells first DNA-extraction machines in December

When you put DNA under a microscope, it looks much like a tangle of string. That tangle makes it difficult to extract quality DNA from other materials.

Six years ago, when University of British Columbia (UBC) biophysics professor Andre Marziali was looking to test the theory that certain molecules will react in unique ways when electric fields are applied to them, he thought a tangle of DNA would provide an adequate challenge.

As his UBC team applied electric charge to the DNA, its tangled mass began to unravel into a straight, manageable and extractable thread.

“That property made DNA very unique,” said Marziali.

“We found ourselves with a molecular parameter that we could play with that helped us separate DNA from other things.”

Six year later, Boreal Genomics, founded by Marziali in 2007, has commercialized what it believes is a smaller, cheaper and faster DNA-extraction method than those on today’s market.

Coinciding with the closing of a $6.9 million series B financing in December that it’s using to ramp up sales and marketing, Boreal has shipped two of its new-and- improved Aurora DNA-extraction machines to new customers.

Norway’s University of Tromso is using the Aurora to extract DNA from seabed samples; Toronto’s Sporometrics Inc. is using it to test for pathogens and germs in the environment.

Boreal has previously sold a handful of prototype versions of the Aurora to, among others, McGill University, which is extracting DNA samples from arctic ice.

The U.S. navy is using an Aurora prototype to help it identify unmarked graves of unidentified U.S. servicemen who died in the Korean War.

While most of Marziali’s foundational research was supported or funded by Canadian organizations like the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institutes for Health Research and Genome BC, the organizations in the U.S. defence apparatus have supported much of Boreal’s commercialization efforts. the firm’s Aurora is helping the U.S military research bio-warfare agents and identify war dead.

In its recent series B financing, Boreal became the 13th B.C. company to receive funding from venture capitalists that manage the $90 million BC Renaissance Capital Fund (BCRCF), which is a provincial-government-operated fund aimed at encouraging more venture capital investment in B.C.

Along with ARCH Venture Partners and Kearny Venture Partners, which are both BCRCF fund managers, Vancouver’s GrowthWorks Capital Ltd. and Virginia-based venture capital firm InQTel participated in the $6.9 million financing.

Most current DNA-extraction methods use binding agents to separate DNA from other materials in a sample.

But DNA can be difficult to bind to if samples are compromised or impure.

Boreal thinks its synchronous coefficient of drag alteration (SCODA) technology has an edge. Marziali co-invented SCODA with Lorne Whitehead, a renowned UBC professor and entrepreneur.

The Aurora’s electrical charge organizes DNA into a sample’s core and forces the DNA through a gel or liquid, separating it from other materials and impurities in the sample.

Victoria’s StarFish Medical has played a key role in improving Aurora’s design and reducing its manufacturing costs. While the prototype of the Aurora cost about $50,000, the new version, which runs faster and can handle poorer samples, costs $35,000.

“The machine we made originally took one person three weeks to build,” said Marziali. “Now it takes one person two days to build.”

While the Aurora’s initial application is purifying difficult-to-read DNA samples, the company is developing the Aurora so it can identify rare gene sequences within DNA – which could be useful in detecting early signs of cancer and diagnosing rare diseases.

“The Aurora’s alternating electric fields can separate nucleic acids from other biological molecules based on their physical properties,” said Caley Castelein, general partner at Kearny. “Current existing markets for the Aurora technology are in the hundreds of millions, but there are tweaks to the technology that may enable many applications that represent much larger new markets.”

Boreal is shipping an Aurora to a lab in the U.S., where an expert who has done forensics work for the FBI for 25 years will help the Vancouver company develop protocols required for the Aurora to be used in forensics and crime labs.

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