Chicago start-up F-Cubed, LLC (F3) is helping to stem the recurrence of infectious diseases across the food, health and environmental testing sectors with its disruptive invention — a portable diagnostic device that can analyze raw samples for pathogens in less than an hour.
What does that mean?
As an example of environmental testing, F3’s innovative analyzer can help swimmers avoid unforeseen illnesses by testing the bacteria levels within bodies of water.
Freshwater lakes, ponds and public pools may look inviting, but they could in fact be swimming with thriving bacteria — some of which is natural to that environment, but other types can be present as a result of human fecal matter, sewage spills, animal waste and water runoff during rainfall.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC), refers to this threat as Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs), which is spread by “swallowing, breathing in mists or aerosols of, or having contact with contaminated water in swimming pools, hot tubs, water parks, water play areas, interactive fountains, lakes, rivers or oceans.”
RWIs include “gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, wound infections and diarrhea.” These infections are the result of the presence of common pathogens, such as enterococcus, Crypto (short for Cryptosporidium), and E. coli. According to the CDC, there has been a steady increase in reported RWI cases over the past two decades, with children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems being the most susceptible.
Founded in 2008 and now housed at the Innovation Park at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, F3 manufactures test kits that enable users to test samples, which can include blood, food or water, for these types of bacteria to detect unfavorable levels of quality. F3’s device — the NESDEP IU Molecular Diagnostic System — uses thumbnail-sized, disposable biochips to test for pathogens. In addition to its portable design, the highlight of F3’s technology is that it is designed to be used by someone with minimal training, yet it will still output rigorous results.
F3 technical manager Chris Chanelli explained: “The NESDEP analyzer is an integrated unit that enables the user to perform sample preparation and analysis on a biochip. We designed the analyzer to be easy to use with minimal training, and very robust, enabling an operator with just a small degree of knowledge to perform the analysis.”
The NESDEP’s user-friendly design also makes it a practical tool for medical professionals. Hospitals can use it to test for the bacterium Staph (MRSA), which is resistant to antibiotics, difficult to treat and runs rampant in an environment with many open wounds and weakened immune systems.
Staph infections are easily spread, and can infect hospital patients on the skin in places where a catheter or a tube enters the body. This additional infection can cause increased hospital stays for patients, and as a result increased medical costs.
More importantly, F3 can also better equip medical professionals and aid workers in resource-constrained field settings, such as developing countries, to quickly and accurately detect various pathogens.
For example, in regions where clean water is a privilege and medical care limited, the NESDEP device can determine the presence of common bacteria, including E. coli — friend of spoiling food and cause of stomach viruses — and lymphatic filariasis, otherwise known as elephantiasis, a painful disease that also causes severe disability.
According to the World Health Organization, elephantiasis threatens 1.4 billion people in 73 countries worldwide, and over 120 million people are currently infected, with about 40 million disfigured and incapacitated by the disease.
F3’s device is currently being used in Haiti to identify strains of lymphatic filariasis via the University of Notre Dame Haiti program, as well as in several projects within the food industry to detect bacteria such as E. coli and Listeria.