Business Against the Virus
“A portable device used to quickly detect coronavirus infection has been developed in Troitsk!”, central TV channels reported. This news has spread on social networks since during the epidemic the interest in everything that gives hope to cope with it increases many times. Evgeny Gorsky, CEO of the Troitsk Engineering Center, part of the TechnoSpark Group of Companies, and the Troitsk Person of the Year in the Innovation category, told us what the Indicator-BIO device could do, how it was created, and what were the prospects for its implementation.
Evgeny Gorsky, CEO of the Troitsk Engineering Center
The small device, half the size of a coffee maker, was on a laboratory table. The pull-out tray was at the bottom, a touchscreen—at the top, and the logo of the customer—the Pirogov Medical University—”M” in the bowl, was in the corner. Evgeny, dressed in a white robe, conducted a demonstration: he opened a bag with a disposable microfluid cartridge that also had been made here, and using a pipette, filled it first with a reagent, and then—with a test material. In the actual practice, it will be a swipe from the nose or throat. “Did you check each other for the virus?” “No,” Gorsky replied. “It’s not a joke! We don’t have the right to take tests, we are not a medical institution, but equipment developers.” The cartridge was inserted inside, and the display already highlighted the necessary program. In a minute, the temperature rose to 96ºС, and then the device itself performed cooling and heating cycles necessary for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). To identify bacteria and viruses, the characteristic area of their genetic code was reproduced many times, stained with a special dye, and then its concentration was measured by optical methods. It remained to wait about half an hour.
Fast and “in the Field”
On the screen, two curves were shown, which may be up to four: one was the control curve and the rest—for detection. The detection object depends on the reagent. For example, it could be COVID-19 and two types of influenza virus. “It works like a pregnancy test,” Gorsky explained. “If both curves were at zero, the test didn’t work, if only the green one, the pathogen was not detected, and if both grew...” Then, a successful negative analysis was shown on the screen.
The PCR method is now used everywhere, but typical analyzers are cumbersome and rather slow, designed for a hundred tests in one “run”, and working in the laboratory. Indicator-BIO makes only one quick test in the field: for example, in airports, in hospital reception rooms, at customs—wherever there is a need to quickly test one person. In such a portable class, it almost does not have competitors—the price of analysis using our device can be only RUB 300, whereas the price of the analysis using the American analogue Cepheid GeneXpert II is several thousand rubles.
So far, six Indicator-BIO devices have been made at the Troitsk Engineering Center. One of them was in front of us, the other five were tested in conjunction with the test systems. Testing certification has now been accelerated to the limit, and it takes up to five days instead of one year. In Russia, six coronavirus-detecting sets have already been certified.
Indicator-BIO mobile device for detection of infections
At the Intersection of Sciences
“Now I will take off my white robe and turn into the director,” Evgeny Gorsky continued, and we moved into his office. He is a physicist by training, his career has begun and continues at ISAN, although it has shifted towards innovation. In 2013, Gorsky headed the Troitsk Engineering Center, a spin-off of RnD-ISAN, to implement ISAN’s developments, such as light sources, spectrometers, and optical radiation detectors. In the same year, TechnoSpark opened, and TEC immediately became its resident. In 2016, cooperation with the Gamalei Institute of Biology and Epidemiology and the Pirogov Medical University began.
“Bioanalytics came to us as an order for contract development,” says Gorsky. “Our desire to take on any crazy projects allowed us to get this job. Multidisciplinarity is the most difficult thing in them. Biologists and engineers often need an interpreter. We were lucky, our partners included physicists, who have later become biologists, and have been able to understand and establish communication.”
The work on the device was carried out under the National Chemical and Biological Safety System target program of the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation. The project had been in the final stages with the prospect of the series launching at the end of 2020, but when the first news about the virus came from China, the urgency of the device availability became obvious.
Two Months Instead of one Year
“It should be understood that the sample cannot be replicated at once: devices for a batch of five pieces and those for one thousand can look the same, but seriously differ inside,” Gorsky explains. “Normally, the preparation of design documentation would take a year, according to the current plan the device goes into circulation in July, and we think to accelerate this further, but it is more dependent on the supply of components. We are sometimes asked why it takes so long, but two months is a supershort period for instrumentation!”
Other TechnoSpark companies are also involved in the production: TEN Optics prepares a replacement for imported optics, TEN fab makes mechanical parts, and BioSpark advises on the biological part. The device will be assembled in TechnoSpark, with the planned volumes of 50-100 units per month.
When the journalists learned about the development, the Troitsk Engineering Center suddenly became famous all over the country. “It is still unclear, whether it is good or bad. Everything goes the same way here: the TV will not make the devices for us,” Gorsky smiles. Yet, is there a sense that here, in the laboratory silence, the Troitsk engineers save humanity? “We are working,” Evgeny replies calmly. “It will be good if we do.”