FluoretiQ have paired carbohydrate chemistry with quantum sensing to create a new method of bacterial identification that could speed up diagnosis. Co-founder and CEO Neciah Dorh joined Anna Fleming to discuss the importance of identifying infection-causing bacteria and what FluoretiQ’s quick-turnaround system could mean for healthcare.
What does FluoretiQ do?
In the broadest sense, we’re trying to ensure everyone receives the best antibiotic treatment for their needs, using our culture-free bacterial identification technology. Effectively, we can shorten the time it takes to identify bacteria causing an infection from days down to minutes. That’s crucial because it facilitates targeted antibiotic treatment from an early stage, meaning a greater chance of survival and a shorter time to recovery, which, in turn, means that less money is spent keeping people in hospitals unnecessarily. Additionally, there are a host of public health benefits to reducing the time it takes to identify bacteria.
So how does the technology work?
It brings together two pieces of innovation, which is why our team is so diverse – chemists, microbiologists and engineers. The first is a new class of species-specific bacteria probes, and the second is quantum-enhanced fluorescence detection. The system is incredibly sensitive because we’re resolving fluorescence on a photon level. So let’s take urinary tract infections (UTIs), which are our target application at the moment, as an example. We have been working on an E.coli specific probe: these probes are mixed directly with the urine where they selectively attach to the bacteria, the mixture is then interrogated with light pulses. Fluorescent emission from the probes indicates the presence of E.coli in the urine sample. The fluorescence measurements allow us to determine whether bacteria are present, secondly how many, which strains, and in the long term we hope to use them to determine which antibiotics will best treat the infection.
So particular probes will only bind particular bacterial strains?
That’s right. We have built on advances in carbohydrate chemistry around cell recognition. Carbohydrates play an important role in bacterial infections. There are particular carbohydrates which an E. coli, let’s say, seeks out on the epithelial tissue to enable it to adhere.
What alternatives are there in the market at the moment?
The alternatives are best considered by technology – microbial culture, Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) and MALDI-TOF being the current front runners. Where we stand out is the speed of our test and the wide range of addressable bacteria. Let’s take the most ubiquitous approach for example, microbial culture. Lab-based scientists would effectively take a sample and grow the bacteria for several days, and then identifying them is a somewhat involved process of elimination. It’s a time-consuming and quite labour-intensive process.
So how did FluoretiQ start?
Initially, when we were working on the enhanced fluorescence measurement technology, we met academics from the University of Bristol who were working on probes, and quickly realised it was a meeting of complementary technologies. We decided to take a look at this problem of quickly identifying bacteria. The sensitivity of our detection method meant that we would not need to culture our bacteria, and the specificity of the probes meant that we would be able to identify them. Without any formal funding or agreement in place, we decided to run a set of experiments on E. coli in water and determine whether or not the idea had legs. When we noticed that we were able to detect E. coli across a fairly large dynamic range – over 6 orders of magnitude, we realised we might be onto something.
At that point we applied for grants, together with Prof. Galan and Dr Spencer at the University of Bristol, to further the idea. At the time we had a prototype of the fluorescence detection system held together with duct tape and the probe was really in its infancy. But since then, a lot of work has gone into it, and we were even able to take it into an NHS lab and do more than 300 measurements using our technology. Having run ahead like that to test it in a real-world setting has focussed the R&D, so we know which areas we need to focus on to get the technology ready for the marketplace. It also means that we get to develop a great relationship with the people who will ultimately be buying it from us.
Did you have much support as you started out? How did you come to Unit DX?
Absolutely. This wouldn’t have gone forward without the support of the University; they’ve been an invaluable collaborator. That goes beyond just the academics that we’ve worked with directly – also RED, the tech transfer office, and the numerous people who work to create impact from University research. We got our start with the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC), and they introduced us to Unit DX. Unit DX has been really supportive of FluoretiQ as a company. Prior to getting our Match funding in place, I think even before we got our grant application out, we were offered a desk to come in and work when we needed to. That support paid off because ultimately we rented lab space and we’ve been based there since.
What are your plans for the future?
We have to be strategic because the healthcare space is complicated. We’re starting off focussing on UTIs because they’re potentially fatal, particularly for the vulnerable. Ultimately, we want to provide diagnostic support for more infectious diseases. We see ourselves becoming a global business, because we’re tackling a global healthcare issue. Our plans are really to accelerate the R&D, get to the market as quickly as possible and get the product out across the world. We are here to save time, to save money and ultimately save peoples’ lives.
For more information on FluoretiQ, please visit their website.