To perform most blood tests, a phlebotomist obtains a vial of blood is from a patient and sends the sample to a lab, where it’s spun in a big machine and analyzed. Lab technicians then email the patient’s results to the physician who ordered the test. The entire process takes up to two hours but can be rushed for urgent cases.
But what if that same testing process could take five minutes instead of two hours, and could be performed right in the hospital’s ER, OR or ICU environment? What if it also required just one drop of the patient’s blood? How much accuracy and efficiency could that innovation add for hospitals? And what would it mean for patients, who wouldn’t have to wait to receive important test results?
Punkaj Ahuja, founder of Apollo Medical Devices LLC, is making this a reality through a new point-of-care blood testing system. The system will allow doctors and nurses to read a basic metabolic panel – also known as the CHEM-7 – by squeezing a single drop of blood onto a disposable cartridge, which sends the results to a handheld analyzer.
From prototype to production
Beginning in 2012, Ahuja spent a year working at the Richard Desich SMART Commercialization Center for Microsystems at Lorain County Community College to test and develop the technology behind his innovative blood-testing system. Although he devised the idea for the product at Case Western Reserve University – where he was pursuing his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering – Ahuja couldn’t be sure he had a viable product until he had a working prototype produced at a competitive cost.
“We’d developed proof of concept of the core technology, but at the Desich SMART Center, we were able to prove scalability – that it was a commercially viable product,” he says.
Even a great product won’t take off if the technology proves too expensive to mass produce or if it offers negligible advantages over competitively priced products. At Desich SMART Center, Ahuja learned how to use equipment, instrumentation and clean rooms to engineer and produce microelectronics for the system’s single-use cartridges at a lower cost than competitors are able to.
“There are other devices that do this, but they’re very expensive,” he says. “Competing handheld devices cost $15,000. Our analyzer will sell for a third of that price.”
Competing cartridges are designed with eight layers of complex metal electrodes, which drive up fabrication costs to $15 per cartridge. Ahuja has found a better way.
“We use plastic layers and chemical sensors,” he says. “We’ve eliminated all of the expensive raw materials, so we can drive testing costs to about half that of competitors.”
Furthermore, none of the competing handheld products can test less than a vial of blood.
Out of the kitchen
Apollo is now in the “alpha phase” of cartridge prototype development, which will prove whether it can mass-produce the cartridges without issue, says Apollo Medical Devices CEO Patrick Leimkuehler.
“We have to know if we can make a thousand at a time that respond as they come off the line and six months later – without having to wait an actual six months,” Ahuja says.
Through its partnership with LCCC Business Growth Services, Apollo also secured $125,000 in financing from the Innovation Fund and business operational assistance through the Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise (GLIDE) to bring its system to market, financing that has helped them come a long way.
“Last year at this time, it was Punkaj and I in his kitchen, writing on his whiteboard,” Leimkuehler says.
Today, Ahuja and Leimkeuler have hired four full-time and three part-time staffers as they ramp up production for a clinical trial next summer.
Ultimately, a victory for Apollo Medical Devices is a win for Northeast Ohio as the region continues to grow its reputation for biotechnology innovation. Patients can also see the benefits of new technologies that improve patient care and make health care more efficient, convenient and cost effective.
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