Exalt Diagnostics is an early-stage life sciences startup that is commercializing photonic crystal enhanced fluorescence (PCEF) technology developed in HMNTL Director Brian Cunningham’s research group over the last seven years with funding from the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation.
The company’s patented FluoroBoost(TM) technology consists of nanostructured photonic crystal chips and detection instruments that boost the output of fluorescent light emitters used to label DNA and protein molecules present in blood samples. The photonic crystal surfaces efficiently harness the light from a laser and channel it into fluorescently tagged proteins, causing them to light up with greater intensity than otherwise possible.
This technology may someday enable physicians to detect cancer and other diseases in their earliest stages, accurately identify allergies, and quickly determine the presence of viruses—all from a single drop of a patient’s blood.
The company is initially targeting both allergy and cancer detection applications. The current method for allergy testing involves sticking a patient with an array of needles that contain common allergens to see which ones cause a reaction on the skin.
The Exalt approach provides far greater sensitivity by placing a patient’s drop of blood on a silicon chip that has the allergens printed on it. Allergy antibodies in the sample bind to the corresponding allergen and produce a bright light.
“Sometimes people suffer from the effects of an allergy for a long time, not knowing exactly what they are allergic to, so being able to quickly and inexpensively test for a lot of things in one panel is very interesting,” said Cunningham. “It would be nice to tell people to avoid things that they may not now know are an irritant to them.”
In 2013, Cunningham received an NIH National Cancer Institute award to work with medical colleagues at Arizona State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on developing a clinically validated diagnostic platform for detecting a set of 10 breast cancer biomarkers in a single droplet of serum, as well as detection of antibodies that indicate if a person has been exposed to Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
According to Cunningham, detecting cancer biomarkers this way (aka liquid biopsies) is gaining acceptance, but it’s still not in the mainstream of medicine yet. “The technology just tells you that the protein is there and there’s a chance of having some type of cancer,” he said. “But it doesn’t tell you where it comes from. Instead, this technology would be complemented by mammography or another imaging technique to find the source of the cancer.”
In addition to its highly sensitive detection capabilities, the Exalt Diagnostics technology may someday be used to follow the course of treatment by tracking a patient’s biomarkers over time. “A non-invasive, inexpensive test that doesn’t require the patient to be exposed to ionizing radiation or have an MRI is an attractive alternative for tracking someone’s cancer treatment,” he said.
Exalt, which is hiring key technical positions, is currently developing a beta prototype of the detection instrument. Cunningham founded the company in 2012; it’s located in the University of Illinois EnterpriseWorks incubator facility.