Published April 28, 2020
Life sciences company ZeptoMetrix is leveraging resources at UB to develop new quality control products for infectious disease diagnostics, including for COVID-19.
ZeptoMetrix’s existing product lines include molecular controls that contain bacteria and viruses that have been altered to be non-infectious. While these controls don’t cause disease, they still contain wholly intact germs, so hospitals and labs can use the controls to verify that tests for different diseases are working properly.
A partnership with UB’s Buffalo Institute for Genomics and Data Analytics (BIG) will help the firm expand in this market.
Through BIG, ZeptoMetrix has access to a high-tech instrumentation system in UB’s Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences known as a digital droplet PCR platform (ddPCR) with an automated droplet generator. This equipment can measure the number of viruses or bacteria that are present in the company’s controls, says Shawn Smith, president and CEO of ZeptoMetrix. Though other businesses and researchers will be able to use the instrument for a fee, ZeptoMetrix has priority access.
Smith says ZeptoMetrix is leveraging the equipment from UB to develop controls for COVID-19 testing that use whole, intact, inactivated viruses. Smith expects to launch these controls soon.
“ZeptoMetrix used the ddPCR during its development of whole, intact non-infectious SARS-CoV-2 external run controls for use in COVID-19 testing,” Smith says. “The ability to quantitate virus concentration is an essential step in producing and testing these control products, which are essential to the infectious disease testing community.”
For some other diseases, the company is using the ddPCR system to develop more sophisticated controls that can be used to help validate tests that measure viral load. There currently is not a market need for such quantitated controls for COVID-19 testing, Smith says, but there is for such viruses as HIV and those causing hepatitis.
“Diagnostic testing technologies are evolving into more formal quantitative measurements. Instead of just detecting the presence of a virus, doctors want to monitor how much virus is in a patient’s system. What is their viral load?” Smith says. “The sophisticated controls we are developing will help laboratories confirm that quantitative diagnostic tests are providing accurate results.”
As part of its collaboration with BIG, ZeptoMetrix — which has about 70 employees in Western New York — expects to create at least 13 new jobs in the region over five years. The company will also hire UB students as interns and engage in collaborative research with university scientists on topics that could include oncology diagnostics.
The partnership builds on years of connections between UB and ZeptoMetrix, which is based on Main Street in Buffalo and has lab operations in UB’s Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.
“We have had ongoing participation in career fairs hosted by UB, we bring in UB interns and hire graduates, and we have routine collaborations with scientists at UB and Roswell Park,” says Smith, who received a bachelor’s degree in biochemical pharmacology from UB in 1987. “We feel it’s important to work within the community. We want to encourage local students to stay local, and as we grow, we expect to create more opportunities and hire more people locally.”
ZeptoMetrix has a particularly strong relationship with UB’s Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, where the company leases lab space. The center has also supported ZeptoMetrix through its Career Experience Program, which has paid for a number of UB students to intern at the company.
“UB and ZeptoMetrix have a deep, collaborative partnership, bringing new technologies to market,” says Christina Orsi, UB associate vice president for economic development. “We have instrumentation, technology expertise and unique facilities offering businesses incubator and lab space. Academic-university partnerships are increasingly important to enable technology innovations to reach the market faster with an impact to the population’s health.”
“ZeptoMetrix is a growing company that has a great track record of partnering with UB and creating jobs in Western New York,” says Smitha James, associate director for scientific operations and industry engagement in UB’s Office of Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships. “Our investment will help to continue that momentum.”