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The genetic basis of the most deadly diseases in the world aren’t well-understood or easily treated. But a small group of scientists in Providence’s nascent Knowledge District are developing a way to fully understand and treat diseases such as cancer.
Providence-based startup NABsys Inc.’s proprietary technology takes an entirely different approach to looking at DNA than what is done today and extracts far more information that other methods can, said Dr. Barrett Bready, CEO and co-founder of NABsys and Providence Business News’ 2011 Innovator of the Year.
Scientists currently sequence DNA optically by illuminating it and labeling the units that make up a person’s genetic code (DNA bases) to read them. Making the DNA “light up” is expensive and it doesn’t provide enough genetic information to differentiate healthy cells from unhealthy cells. For that reason, treatments such as chemotherapy kill both healthy and unhealthy cells, making patients extremely ill.
The inability to differentiate DNA of systemic diseases and viruses from healthy human cells is the reason that systemic diseases such as cancer and HIV have not been defeated, Bready said.
“Historically, we have been successful in treating infectious diseases because the genome on the bacterium is very different from a human genome. So, scientists know how to kill bacteria and not harm human cells,” Bready said. “But with systemic diseases such as cancer, the cells aren’t so different from healthy cells and the treatments available today can’t distinguish between the two.”
Scientists know that the differences between the DNA in cancer cells and the DNA in healthy human cells can be targeted to kill cancer cells without destroying healthy cells, but existing technologies aren’t able to pinpoint those differences.
But NABsys’ technology can.
The technical explanation of what NABsys’ platform does is it builds solid state, electrically addressable nanopore arrays that sequence DNA without amplification or labeling by combining nanopore sequencing with sequencing-by-hybridization.
In layman’s terms, NABsys has figured out how to make DNA flow through silicon chips to deliver DNA sequencing electronically. With that, scientists can obtain detailed information about the DNA of individual cells and use that information to differentiate between healthy cells and unhealthy cells.