Irish firm's $10 test kit has potential to revolutionise HIV management

A Co Clare firm has developed a disposable test kit with the potential to revolutionise HIV management worldwide, writes Trish Dromey.

Developing a disposable test kit with the potential to revolutionise HIV management across the globe, Co Clare company AltraTech has announced plans to raise €5m in funding.

“We aim to be first to market with a $10 disposable, battery-operated test kit which doesn’t require refrigeration. We are targeting a €500m emerging global market,’’ says AltraTech CEO and co-founder Tim Cummins.

In a world where 35m people have HIV, monitoring the viral load is crucial as it allows those infected to know when to use medication to maintain the disease at a low level.

“At present, monitoring requires specialised equipment and staff, is labour intensive, expensive, slow and complicated,” says Mr Cummins explaining that the kit which AltraTech is working on can make the process “faster, smaller, cheaper and simpler”.

Company co-founder and senior executive officer, Dr Brian O’Farrell says the availability of this type of test can change the lives of people with HIV.

“It means that testing can be carried out on-the-spot by doctors and nurses in clinics rather than by specialised technical personnel. This is hugely significant for HIV monitoring in parts of the developing world where HIV rates are high and medical facilities are basic,” he says adding that this is the type of test which the World Health Organisation has called for.

In a major development for the company, AltraTech has, this week, signed a collaborative research agreement with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s largest biomedical research agency and an agency of the US Government.

“We are working on this with Dr Daniel Appella, a leading HIV researcher, and will combine our sensor chips with NIH biomarker probes to detect the viral load.”

AltraTech, which has an R&D facility in Cork as well as a manufacturing operation in Shannon, has secured the assistance of HIV researcher, Professor Mary Horgan, Dean of Medicine at UCC, who has agreed to validate the testing at CUH.

This announcement comes two years after the founding of the company, which set out to use sensor chip technology to develop a disposable 30-minute DNA test to detect food fraud. 

The company was formed when the founders joined forces after meeting at a University of Limerick Conference. Mr Cummins, who has 20 years experience in designing silicon chips, previously founded ChipSensors which sold for €10m in 2010. 

A zoologist with a PhD in genetics, Dr O’Farrell has 10 years experience in medical biotechnology. 

“When we met we brainstormed on ways to use silicon chips to solve today’s pressing medical problems,” said Dr O’Farrell.

Given Mr Cummins’ track record with ChipSensors, their company quickly secured €900,000 in funding which included €650,000 from Kernel Capital as well as investment from Enterprise Ireland.

The announcement of plans to develop a DNA test for the food industry proved timely, since 2013 was the year of the horsemeat scandal. After two years of R&D, this food-sampling test, was launched at the Ploughing Championship this year.

“Our first customers included a food testing lab in Germany and medical manufacturing companies in the UK and US which are also acting as distributors and will help us scale-up internationally.”

Having begun by focusing on the food industry, because it is less highly regulated than the health sector, the founders are now ready to move into the medical space.

The collaborative agreement with the US NIH came about following a meeting between Dr O’Farrell and Dr Appella at a conference in June. “He immediately saw the potential to put the NIH test for HIV on our chip and he put in an order,” says Dr O’Farrell.

Having put a collaborative research agreement in place, AltraTech is now ready for the next step — to raise €5m which it needs to develop a working prototype by the end of 2017.

“We are aiming for 20% of the €500m market and a turnover of €100m in five years,’’ says Mr Cummins .

Company profile:

Name: Altratech

Location: Shannon and Cork

Established: 2013

CEO: Tim Cummins

Staff: 6


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