Tuesday 24 March 2015

TrueLab: A Portable Infectious Disease Diagnostic Lab for $8,000

The Diagnostic Promise of PCR Technology

Infectious disease continues to be a major part of the health burden that emerging markets face. Diseases like Tuberculosis (TB), Malaria, Swine Flu, and Hepatitis B kill millions of people each year, and maim the lives of many millions more. Antibiotics can help with certain pathogens, but their misuse and indiscriminate application have led to the rise of drug-resistant 'super-bugs' that are now one of humanity's most serious public health risks. Such mis-directed therapies result from the over-marketing or adulteration of medications, a lack of qualified doctors, and an inability to efficiently and accurately diagnose people for precisely targeted treatment.

The latter two factors are where technology can be especially helpful. Diagnostic technology that can accurately and quickly diagnose disease can provide the data necessary to make precise therapy recommendations, as well as mount targeted interventions to forestall or manage outbreaks.

To encourage and guide appropriate diagnostic innovation for infectious diseases, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed the ASSURED criteria stating that devices should be Affordable, Sensitive with very few false-negatives, Specific with very few false-positives, User-friendly requiring minimal training to use, Rapid to enable treatment at first visit, Robust, e.g. not requiring refrigeration, Equipment-free, and Delivered to those who need it, i.e. Point-of-Care (PoC). These criteria are set against a backdrop of incumbent laboratory-based diagnostic testing methods, which require specialized infrastructure and highly skilled technicians, in addition to being expensive. They are also time-intensive, running batch tests for 4-6 hours at a time, and returning individual test results 1-2 days after the order was placed.  These limitations of traditional equipment ensure very low adoption rates within the markets that have the greatest need. There are Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs) available for some pathogens, but their sensitivity rates are low, often around 50%.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) diagnostic tests solve the sensitivity issue by isolating and identifying pathogen-specific nucleic acid from body fluid samples, but the PCR devices from companies like Abbott, Roche, and Cepheid still operate on incumbent models requiring air-conditioned labs, batch testing, continuous power supply, and laptops for readouts. While less expensive than traditional laboratory setups, the lowest-cost PCR systems from large players are still expensive for broad emerging market use, costing upwards of $35,000 for just the hardware. They may also perform a limited or less-relevant range of tests, e.g. Cepheid's golden standard GeneXpert product only tests for TB, and still costs about $60,000.

India's Answer To The ASSURED Criteria

TrueLab Uno Dx Real Time Micro PCR Analyzer 
Infectious disease remains a critical public safety concern in India. In fact, an MSN article from March, 2015 highlights the "massive TB crisis" that is killing about 1,000 Indians per day. No doubt this is a multi-faceted problem, but one facet is that very few if any imported diagnostic devices fit the WHO's ASSURED criteria. Responding to this need, The New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research funded Bangalore-based Bigtec Labs to help solve this problem by creating a true PoC micro-PCR device that is easy to use, low-cost, portable, independent of continuous power, and has wireless data transfer capability. Bigtec started work on this technology in 2004 and, over the next ten years, succeeded in creating the TrueLab micro-PCR system that does meet all of the ASSURED criteria, and is now being marketed by Molbio Diagnostics, headquartered in Goa. Molbio is a 50/50 joint venture between the Tulip Group and Bigtec Labs, the former having deep PoC diagnostic device manufacturing and an international marketing presence.

The two fixed components of the TrueLab micro-PCR system are a sample preparation device, and an analyzer. Together, they provide very accurate diagnosis of infectious disease with a turnaround of 1 hour, and the system can be custom programmed for automatic data transfer to any remote server at the end of every test. The testing process begins with sample collection and a loading of the sample preparation device. This currently requires about 20 minutes of hand-on time, but is estimated to fall to 12 minutes with the introduction of Molbio's next generation automated sample processor in about 2 months. The next step is to move the prepared sample onto a disease-specific micro chip for loading into the analyzer. The entire 40 cycles of analysis is a totally hands-off procedure aside from loading the chip.

The cost of a TrueLab product set is about $8,000 within India for all of the hardware, or about 25% the cost of imports. The TrueLab system also targets a range of diseases that represent the main infectious disease burden in India; namely, TB, H1N1, HBV, Chik V, Malaria, Dengue Fever, and Typhoid. Finally, the rugged design of the hardware includes rechargeable batteries and room temperature stable reagent microchips that make the system robust and widely usable.

Sales Coverage Map of the Tulip Group
Many hospitals in India will likely continue to rely on incumbent testing models initially, but Molbio is wisely targeting rural areas where the existing PCR machines do not have any presence at all. In doing so, they could service a higher percentage of the 50,000 labs in India than incumbent PCR solutions, who currently reach less than 1%. In time, the cost and time savings data may make the case strongly for all potential customers. The Tulip Group is also well-positioned to help scale TrueLab's market presence in developing markets around the world, with the exception of the U.S. / Canadian markets: The Molbio executive I spoke with my phone was not interested in considering the United States as a potential market unless the regulatory, IP, and other 'paperwork'-related time and cost barriers are reduced. A critical element of Molbio's international strategy is expanding the scope of practice for less-skilled health workers to operate this equipment and provide definitive diagnostic data, and they will be hosting a Global Business Associates Training program in April where all global partners have agreed to send representatives for training.

Could Molbio's Micro-PCR System Succeed in the United States?

Let's review the basic elements of TrueLab's value proposition. First, the PCR technique increases the sensitivity of molecular testing for the presence of pathogens. Second, a PoC micro-PCR system provides the ability to make an accurate diagnosis during a patient's first visit with a provider. Third, the form factor of this product ensures portability, ease of use, and remote disease surveillance through GPRS and Wi-Fi. Fourth, the platform offers multiple disease detection; in fact, Bigtec's pipeline assays include infectious diseases that occur more commonly in the developed world including Salmonella, HCV, HIV, HPV-Cervical Cancer, Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Trichomonas. Presumably all pathogens known to man will eventually be added once we've sequenced their nucleic acids. All that's required for Bigtec to add them to the TrueLab platform is a new reagent microchip and a software update. Finally, these reagents do not require refrigeration, making it possible for smaller hospitals and clinics to maintain a supply of tests on-hand.

Considering a few macro trends, the worldwide Infectious Diseases Diagnostics (IDD) market was already worth $14 billion in 2014, and is forecast to grow to nearly $20 billion by 2020. North America does account for the largest spend in this market, even though the prevalence of deadly infectious diseases is far below levels in emerging markets. It may therefore be the case that very expensive equipment is being purchased and underutilized as 'safety equipment' by community clinics, governmental agencies, and hospitals, the latter of which were the main end-users of the IDD market in 2014. These customers may be glad to purchase more cost-effective, PoC options, especially as there is growing demand for decentralized testing and more efficient test times.

On the other hand, micro-PCR does face stiff competition from incumbents who are investing heavily in alternative molecular diagnostic methods seen to have higher efficiency potential than PCR such as Isothermal Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests (INAAT) and microarrays, which are forecasted to be the fastest growing markets for the next five years. The efficiency question is central: While PCR's ability to provide PoC diagnosis a huge absolute efficiency gain relative to the traditional method of ordering remote laboratory tests, each test requires some degree of attention from skilled personnel that the throughput rate may seem low and the costs of public screening high to providers who are used to simply ordering remote tests.

TrueLab Quattro Micro-PCR Analyzer
Molbio is reducing this bottleneck with their next generation Truelab Quattro analyzer that can run 4 tests simultaneously, as well as a fully automated sample preparation machine. An integrated multiplex platform is also planned for introduction in the next two years.

The TrueLab products seem technically capable of obtaining any regulatory approvals, which they're already receiving on a test-by-test basis from The Drugs Controller General of India and The Director General-Indian Council of Medical Research. Their clearance in February, 2015 for the H1N1 test recommends the product's use for "all laboratories including low level/ low volume/ peripheral level laboratories." This probably represents most in-house laboratories testing for infectious diseases within the U.S., and at least suggests that the technology behind TrueLab is sound enough for more rigorous regulatory approval. The Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp has also validated the accuracy of their Malaria test. Molbio certainly takes this aspect of the business seriously, as their Universal Control Kit documentation shows.

Questions for Discussion:
  • Would IDD purchasers in the U.S. find value in the TrueLab system? 
  • Is TrueLab the world's first IDD device that fits the WHO's ASSURED criteria? 


  1. A friend of mine at BioFire Diagnostics in SLC, Utah drew my attention to their FilmArray PCR product, which seems to match all ASSURED criteria as well or better than TrueLab, except for affordability since the system costs $50K. That said, they do test for more than 100 pathogens, and already have FDA clearance.

    "The FDA-cleared FilmArray system from BioFire Diagnostics has set a new standard in molecular diagnostics. Featuring unmatched usability, the FilmArray’s Respiratory and Blood Culture Identifications panels are comprehensive and, combined, test for more than a hundred pathogens. With unmatched ease-of-use, FilmArray requires just 2 minutes of hands-on-time and returns results in about 1 hour."


  2. Yes infectious diseases are continuously becoming a health burden and leads to high death ratio. Thus importance of accurate diagnose in early stage become very crucial to have targeted treatment. With the advancement in technology, now we have advance diagnostic equipment like you state above and one you can explore on labwrench provide rapid test result.

  3. There are many more mosquito spread disease like dengue, malaria, zika virus, west mile virus, elephantiasis etc. WHO should take more concerned with international public health.

  4. The FDA-cleared FilmArray system from BioFire Diagnostics has set a new standard in molecular diagnostics. Featuring unmatched usability, the FilmArray’s Respiratory and Blood Culture Identifications panels are comprehensive and, combined, test for more than a hundred pathogens.God informatins..helful for babies

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