The value of DNA sequencing has plummeted at a price faster than Moore’s Regulation, opening massive markets in the sequencing house. Genomics for most cancers care on your own is predicted to hit $23 billion by 2025, but sample preparing prices for sequencing have stagnated, triggering a substantial bottleneck in the place.
Typical sample preparing, converting DNA from a saliva sample, for instance, into one thing that can be fed to a sequencing equipment, depends on a liquid-dealing with robot. It is fundamentally a mechanical arm outfitted with pipette strategies that moves liquid samples to plastic plates and other devices placed on the deck. These devices require multiple fluidic transfers that lead to weak utilization of reagents and samples, which signifies fewer DNA sequenced. Additionally, they are units of different info silos that lack integration and count on pricey consumables.
As opposed to common liquid-managing automation, the suite of answers formulated by MIT Media Lab spinoff Volta Labs provides stop-to-end integration for a extensive selection of workflows. It’s a modern choice to expensive liquid handling equipment and guide pipetting. “Our engineering is a small-scale, benchtop machine that is low-price and has nominal consumable utilization, enabling fast and flexible composition of new biological workflows,” says Volta Labs co-founder and Head of Engineering Will Langford SM ’14, PhD ’19.
The Volta system is primarily based on digital microfluidic technologies made at MIT by Langford’s co-founder, Volta Labs CEO Udayan Umapathi SM ’17. The core principle powering the innovation is identified as electrowetting. It enables its customers to manipulate droplets all around a printed circuit board to perform organic reactions, automating from uncooked sample to organized library that can be run on a sequencing device.
Umapathi arrived at the Media Lab with what he describes as “a fascination for developing automation from the floor up.” Nevertheless educated as an engineer, Umapathi has used his expertise to a range of fields. In 2015, he started a startup that made world-wide-web and physical resources to help information generation for digital producing. However, it was even though working for a artificial biology enterprise, engineering liquid-dealing with systems for genome engineering options, that he determined the scaling up of automation as a discomfort stage for the discipline.
Meanwhile, Langford spent his MIT times at the Middle for Bits and Atoms, a proudly interdisciplinary plan that explores the boundary among computer system science and physical science. His investigation centered on the idea that engineering could study from biology. Set yet another way, all of daily life is assembled from 20 amino acids, so, assumed Langford, why not try some thing identical with engineering?
In practice, this intended he built built-in robots from a tiny set of millimeter-scale components. “Eventually, I was striving to make engineering extra like biology,” he demonstrates. “I see Volta as an prospect to flip that on its head and use automation to deal with biology additional like engineering. We want to give biologists resources to manipulate liquids and biological reactions at a finer granularity and with a lot more digital adaptability.”
While Volta’s automation system simplifies sample prep by integrating sophisticated workflows, it also drives down charges in the space with a new consumable building. Concerning the circuit board and the sample board is a consumable layer, which is taken off and replaced just after just about every run. Regular consumables are high-priced, conductively coded plastics or large microfluidic constructions. Volta, even so, makes use of a uncomplicated plastic film to lessen the value of consumables, which opens the doorway for the popular adoption of gene sequencing.
All of this factors to a extra economical and inclusionary model in the gene sequencing room. Thanks to Volta, soon, it will not likely be just massive biotechnology businesses with the ability to devote in automation. Tutorial labs, core facilities, and small-to-medium biotech providers will not will need to be concerned about whether they can find the money for an pricey mechanical robot. “The point that excites me is that we’re giving early-stage and mid-to-reduced-throughput biotech firms with impressive instruments that will make it possible for them to contend with bigger gamers, which is superior for the industry as a total,” says Umapathi.
And the simple fact is that regular automation equipment employed in the biotechnology room arrive with their possess established of issues. They’re mistake-vulnerable and you can not scale them. Consider Illumina’s NovaSeq sequencer. It is capable of sequencing 48 complete human genomes in underneath two times — that’s 20 billion special reads — but there is at this time no automation to feed individuals machines at scale. “To run those machines working day in and working day out, the charge basically doesn’t make feeling, which is why we have to tackle the value of sequencing and sample prep,” claims Umapathi.
Volta’s program is constructed on strong-point out electronics, and the Boston-based mostly startup is looking to leverage the scalability of the semiconductor fabrication market and the PCB manufacturing market. “The objective,” clarifies Langford, “is to enable biologists to produce an experiment and modify it speedily, iterate on it, and generate the information essential to see biology at scale.”
Outside of the sample prep bottleneck, finally, the work of Umapathi and Langfordwork will effects a assortment of apps in the synthetic biology business and the biopharma sector. Diagnostics will be reworked, in accordance to Umapathi. “We can help the biology sector by cutting down on the use of pipette tips by 20 or 50 instances. In particular workflows, we can almost completely do away with this bottleneck in the provide chain,” he states.
To carry out all of this, to truly innovate in a area as intricate as biology, Umapathi and Langford insist that a multidisciplinary methods point of view is essential. It is what informs the Volta approach to genomic sequencing in certain, and biology as a whole. “Volta is a new variety of biotechnology organization,” suggests Umapathi. “It’s inevitable that extra engineers and methods thinkers and all those who want to create equipment to engineer biology much better will join firms like ours or start out their possess.”
Turning biology into an engineering theory is no tiny feat, but according to Umapathi and Langford, it’s a requirement.