Tiny Worms Might Serve as 'Canary in the Coal Mine' for Environmental Toxins

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New clean technology developed by Oregon startup could save money and speed testing

"What we've developed is a 'canary in the coal mine' that can detect a broad range of environmental toxins by monitoring the heart-like pump in a simple organism."

A Eugene, Ore., startup has developed a new technology that uses tiny, transparent worms called nematodes to quickly test water samples for a broad range of environmental toxins that impact human health. The breakthrough could dramatically speed testing, cut costs and reduce training time required for technicians doing environmental testing.

Developed by NemaMetrix, Inc. (http://nemametrix.com) with assistance from Oregon BEST (http://oregonbest.org), the technology is a new application of the company's existing ScreenChip technology, which was designed for drug screening and uses microfluidics to extract individual nematodes from a reservoir then monitor electrical signals from the worm to quantitatively measure the effects a drug or chemical has on an animal's overall biology.

"We're applying this same technology to environmental toxins," said Matt Beaudet, CEO of NemaMetrix. "What we've developed is a 'canary in the coal mine' that can detect a broad range of environmental toxins by monitoring the heart-like pump in a simple organism, in this case the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, which has a high degree of genetic and neurophysiological similarity to humans."

This nematode measures one millimeter in length and has only a two-week lifespan. Using the nematodes dramatically reduces the time and costs associated with current testing methods, which often involve small fish, or in longer term studies, mice or rats that live for two years and are expensive to maintain.

Because the nematode is such a simple organism, it reacts to a broad range of toxins, and reacts quickly, giving a rapid indication when a toxin is present, Beaudet said.

"This is especially useful when you're not sure of the exact toxin you're looking for," said Beaudet, referring to situations where toxicity might be suspected, but not specific chemicals. "The nematode quickly indicates if there is something bad in the sample that could be harmful to humans, and more in-depth testing can then be performed."

Beaudet compares the technology to electrocardiogram (ECG) tests on humans that can be used to determine a range of conditions beyond just the health of the heart. Most current environmental toxin testing methods, such as mass spectrometry or petri dish tests, take a very binary, qualitative approach, looking to see whether a specific chemical or toxin is present or not, or if it is lethal or not, Beaudet said.

With the NemaMetrix system, operators can detect even a minor depression in neural activity triggered by a toxin.

"You can only do this with a whole animal and a quantitative platform like ours," Beaudet said. "By analyzing the electrical signals from the nematode we can detect abnormalities that indicate a toxin is present long before the effect is so strong it kills the nematode."

Containing the technology in a small, palm-sized device also makes it easy to deploy so that training time for operators might be reduced from weeks or months to a matter of minutes.

A $250,000 investment in the project through Oregon BEST's Early-Stage Investments program (http://oregonbest.org/what-we-offer/startup-support/early-stage-investments) is enabling the University of Oregon spinout to work with Janis Weeks, a UO professor of biology, to advance the technology through lab testing and customer validation from field tests.

The company has previously received funding from ONAMI and OTRADI and is affiliated with the FertiLab Thinkubator (http://fertilabthinkubator.com) in Eugene and the Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN) (http://oregonrain.org) in the state's southern Willamette Valley.

"We've benefited heavily from Oregon's supportive startup ecosystem and raised more than $1 million by leveraging the state's investor network to build a strong set of partnerships that include not only Oregon BEST, but also Cascade Angels, TiE Oregon, the Portland Seed Fund, and the Oregon State University Venture Fund," Beaudet said. The company also won a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institutes of Health.

These connections have helped the company rapidly launch its product, gain customers, expand laboratory space and grow to a staff to 10 people in two years, he said.

In September, 2014, NemaMetrix and five other companies were recognized by The White House for developing "revolutionary life science platform technologies" that have the potential to completely revolutionize the research enterprise, "catalyzing breakthrough discoveries and making it difficult to imagine life without them."

"NemaMetrix is a great example of a company developing a clean technology right here in Oregon that could have a significant global impact on environmental toxin testing around the world," said Ken Vaughn, Director of Commercialization Programs at Oregon BEST. "The technology could be used to monitor and detect toxins from a wide range of human activities, including agriculture, stormwater runoff, industrial discharges and more."

Oregon BEST offers a wide range of funding and support for cleantech startups in Oregon, and currently has more than 40 start-up companies listed as Oregon BEST Companies (http://oregonbest.org/who-we-serve/cleantech-investors/oregon-best-companies) that are receiving help moving their technologies to the marketplace.

Media Contact: Gregg Kleiner, 541-740-9654
Sources: Ken Vaughn, Oregon BEST, 503-725-9801, ken.vaughn(at)oregonbest.org; Matt Beaudet, NemaMetrix, Inc., 541-510-5216, matt.beaudet(at)nemametrix.com

About Oregon BEST http://oregonbest.org
Oregon BEST funds and assists cleantech startups, bringing together Oregon’s significant R&D strengths to support entrepreneurs in the creation of new products and services. As the nexus for clean technology innovation, Oregon BEST builds capability, convenes collaborations and accelerates solutions to environmental challenges that deliver prosperity in all corners of Oregon. More than 250 Oregon BEST Member Researchers and a network of nine Oregon BEST Labs at four partner universities (Oregon State University, Oregon Tech, Portland State University, and University of Oregon) offer research expertise and lab equipment to industry. Oregon BEST competitively awards Early-Stage Investments to collaborations between startup companies and Oregon BEST Member Faculty at partner universities.

About NemaMetrix http://nemametrix.com
NemaMetrix is a biotechnology company that developed the ScreenChip, a first-in-class phenomics platform for drug discovery and development utilizing the nematode worm, C. elegans, as a model organism. The company’s mission is to offer an affordable and quicker system than the traditional mouse-model. The ScreenChip system can enable screening of therapeutics for orphan and world diseases. NemaMetrix was founded in 2011 in Eugene, Oregon.

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