Astrotech Corp., of Austin, Texas, has a broad range, having developed mass spectrometers in agriculture and manufacturing and selling chemical analyzers for use in the airport security and other applications. Now, it is looking to help in the fight against COVID-19.

The company previously was known as Spacehab Inc., which provided space habitat microgravity experimentation equipment and services to NASA. It subsequently focused on its satellite processing business, Astrotech Space Operations (ASO), as well as 1st Detect, its mass spectrometer instrumentation business, and Astrogenetix, its microgravity vaccine development company. The company went on to sell ASO and ultimately decided to focus on being a business accelerator.

Now it has stepped to the plate in terms of fighting COVID-19 and the pneumonia that result with the development of the Breathtest-1000 to screen for volatile organic compound (VOC) metabolites, which are found in a person’s breath and could indicate an infection.

Astrotech’s mass spectrometry technology is designed for assessing air quality monitoring and trace detection of chemical warfare agents, explosives and narcotics. The European Civil Aviation Conference has certified the technology, which now is deployed in air cargo facilities throughout the EU.

Thomas Pickens III, chairman and CEO of Astrotech, told BioWorld that these facilities love the offering, saying it is an improvement over what they have had. “The problem that they have right now is that the instruments that they use to wipe your bag with at the airport … they have a really hard time with discerning between perfumes and fragrances and TNT, which is the most prevalent explosive that terrorists use,” due to its availability. As a result, there are a high number of false alarms.

“We don’t have that problem; we’re 100% accurate,” Pickens said.

The company thus has confidence that its technology can be designed as a field-deployed instrument and used at drive-up testing facilities to test for the VOCs found in the breath of COVID-19- and pneumonia-infected patients. Of note, testing would take less than a minute and require minimal training.

In today’s testing situation, samples are collected off-site and sent to centrally located labs. The entire process, which includes shipping, processing and taking in the results, requires several days. This delay could result in disease spread. With Breathtest-1000, the company said screening results are near-instant. It acknowledged that Breathtest-1000 probably will not be as accurate as laboratory DNA testing, but it will help in terms of being a quick screening device.

To help achieve this goal, the company is launching a new subsidiary company, Breathtech Corp., that will hold the exclusive license to use the 1st Detect Technology for breath analysis. Pickens confirmed that the subsidiary already has launched.

Pickens told BioWorld that the company could not say at this time when the product would be ready for the FDA. “But it typically takes two to three months in order to do the method development,” he added.

Astrotech also announced March 25 that it has entered definitive agreements with several institutional investors for the purchase and sale of 354,000 shares of the company’s common stock, at a purchase price of $5 per share. Gross proceeds are expected to be $1.77 million, before deducting the placement agent’s fees and other offering expenses payable by the company. It intends to use the net proceeds for continuing operating expenses and working capital.

State of testing

The push for drive-up testing with fast results has been gaining momentum, even as issues with testing overall remain. Brian Weinstein, an analyst with William Blair, noted that testing companies are stepping up. However, “we are seeing the number of test kits that are talked about as being manufactured actually exceeding the capacity of the instruments in the field.” More instrumentation is needed, Weinstein said, but the testing situation appears to be heading in a positive direction, “and we are actually in reasonable shape.”

Still, there are issues. “At this point, we believe the issue is not as much about the test kit numbers as it is about where the tests are actually being run and where testing is most needed. There is excess capacity in many labs around the country and a lack of testing availability where there are hotspots.” He went on to highlight the need for better coordination to get samples to places where there is excess testing capacity. A possible solution he highlighted is having top logistics companies, such as Amazon and Fedex, create a command center and distribute kits where they are needed and ship samples to where there is excess capacity.

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