Working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Genomics Inc. received a $7.5 million Phase I contract to develop a biological sensor for biodefense applications.

During the 18-month contract, U.S. Genomics will tailor its DNA-mapping technology - called GeneEngine - to detect and identify airborne pathogens, such as anthrax and smallpox.

"It's a great validation of our technology and a significant win for us," said Stephen DeFalco, chairman and CEO of U.S. Genomics. "We intend to provide a great solution for the government that will help make us all safer."

The Woburn, Mass.-based company's technology uses a universal reagent to detect and identify pathogens. It then produces a genetic signature, similar to a barcode, unique to each organism. The approach has the potential to identify genetically modified species - those that have been deliberately engineered to fool traditional detection techniques. The technology does not require amplification or the use of pathogen-specific reagents to detect each organism, unlike other detection technologies.

U.S. Genomics has won two other smaller government contracts, one of them focused on biodefense in which the company did in silico modeling to prove that the barcode would be a unique fingerprint. That $500,000 contract was given by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in September 2002. The newest contract with Homeland Security could be expanded beyond the 18 months.

"At the end of 18 months, we will have built a number of prototypes," DeFalco told BioWorld Today. "Then, at that point, they would make a follow-on investment to turn it into a deployable instrument."

Since the company's inception in 1997, U.S. Genomics has raised $50 million. It has enough cash to take it to the middle of next year, but DeFalco expects to initiate another financing by the end of this year. The $7.5 million gained through the Homeland Security contract is a "substantial sum" for the company, he said.

"They looked at over 500 different submissions and then down-selected to about 20 in the first round," he said. "I think they ultimately funded maybe six."

The technology is designed to work similar to an air duct at an airport, in which air is funneled through it and organisms collect against a filter. Every couple of hours, scientists check the filter and isolate a number of long fragments of DNA.

"When we have those long fragments of DNA isolated, we stretch them out and put a tag along the length of the DNA," De Falco said. "It now is going to look like a string of Christmas lights with different colored lights on it."

U.S. Genomics would pass the string through its platform to gain information on the tags, giving it a barcode identifying the DNA of all things in the sample.

"The reason that people at Homeland Security like this technology is, today if there's an anthrax attack, they take out an anthrax kit and perform an anthrax experiment," DeFalco said. "If that comes up negative, that's fine, but if there's smallpox on that, they would have missed it."

Current methods rely on a number of chemistries to determine biowarfare agents, and terrorists now attempt to design threats that deceive detection technologies. However, U.S. Genomics' technology finds all of the pathogens in a sample, the company said. If there is a new engineered threat, the technology will pick up a barcode that it hasn't seen before, enabling researchers to rule out things like anthrax and smallpox and identify the new threat.

The Phase I grant given to U.S. Genomics is one of 14 given to private-sector companies by Homeland Securities' Advanced Research Project Agency (HSARPA) to find advanced biological detection sensors and systems. Six of those grants were given to companies working in the same area as U.S. Genomics, DeFalco said. HSARPA plans to be one step ahead of terrorists who attempt to place bacteria, viruses and other toxins in settings such as airports, government buildings and larger complexes. An accurate biosensor would warn security personnel and therefore protect thousands of people that congregate in public areas.

DeFalco believes the technology could be applied in areas other than biodefense, such as genetic analysis and infectious disease diagnostics.

"If I can look at an environmental sample and identify all of the DNA in it, that's not that different from looking at a drop of blood and identifying all of the DNA in it," DeFalco said.

He believes the technology will help to pinpoint infection faster, allowing physicians to prescribe antibiotics that work with a particular disease strain.