GE startup designs a less painful blood test

Scientists in Niskayuna developed crucial part of collection device
Rachel Schmatz tests blood at Creative Testing Solutions in Bedford, Texas, on Nov. 10, 2016.
Rachel Schmatz tests blood at Creative Testing Solutions in Bedford, Texas, on Nov. 10, 2016.

NISKAYUNA — Getting blood drawn for medical testing may become quicker, less painful and more informal with new technology being developed by a General Electric startup.

The device developed by Drawbridge Health is usable by untrained personnel, takes a tiny amount of blood from a skin prick and stabilizes it so it will keep for days at room temperature until it can reach the testing lab. It’s a technology that could one day be available for in-home use by patients.

Today’s widely used blood-draw procedures require a trained phlebotomist to puncture the patient’s vein and draw one or more vials of blood in a clinical setting, before sending the vials, which must be kept cool, to a lab.

The new technology involves GE at a number of levels:

GE Ventures in Boston came up with the idea for the product, then created Drawbridge to make it a reality, with development help from engineers and scientists at GE Global Research and GE Healthcare. Drawbridge is now privately held and independent, but GE remains an investor.

The Drawbridge team designed the device to do the mechanical work of extracting blood.

Global Research scientists in Niskayuna developed the paperlike matrix that absorbs the blood and stabilizes it for the potentially lengthy wait for testing.

The device is undergoing review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“We expect to complete that process sometime next year,” said Risa Stack, who is managing director of new business creation for GE Ventures and also sits on Drawbridge’s board of directors.

Then the hard work begins: building market acceptance for the new device and capturing market share. Blood is drawn billions of times per year in the United States.

Drawbridge is talking to potential partners that already operate in the industry.

Stack has a long academic and professional background in the field but was born with one unique qualification for this project: a strong dislike of needles and a history of passing out during blood draws. She’ll often bring a book to distract herself when scheduled for a blood draw, and a candy bar to boost her blood sugar.

Drawbridge hasn’t named its device yet, nor released photos of it. But prototypes have been tested on volunteers including Stack, who found it noticeably less painful than the traditional venipuncture blood draw and also less painful than the fingertip-prick done for blood sugar monitoring.

The device withdraws less than a milliliter of blood. It can be used anywhere on the arm but is typically placed near the shoulder. Because it is not pulling blood from the vein, it does not require the skill of a phlebotomist, and it works well on patients with hard-to-find veins.

Making the blood tests easier, it is hoped, will allow for better tracking of medical conditions and response to therapy, saving time, money and even lives. 

The Drawbridge device sends the blood into a cartridge, where the paperlike matrix stabilizes it within a few minutes. The cartridge is then removed for transport to a lab. The promise is that blood tests can be done on a more informal basis at more remote settings — and with less discomfort.

David Moore, a chemist who is the technology operations leader for the functional materials group at Global Research in Niskayuna, led the effort to develop the matrix.

It was essentially an adaptation of technology GE developed for the Life Sciences section of its Healthcare business. The collaborative nature of research efforts at Global Research allows for easy sharing of ideas and expertise across disciplines, technologies and businesses, Stack and Moore said.

Moore said the Drawbridge Health product gathers samples that can be tested in many ways, including for proteins, genetic material and biomarkers that would indicate a wide range of conditions and diseases. 

“The possibilities are quite extensive,” he said, though the product is not envisioned as a forensic or substance-abuse test device at this point.

Stack said the device is part of a health care industry trend toward giving patients increased control over treatment and decreased time away from work or other activities for clinical settings.

Technology to allow quicker and/or easier blood tests has been in development and on the market for years. Many companies make finger-prick glucose testers for diabetes patients. Various apps allow smartphone-linked monitors to provide real-time blood-sugar data and, if needed, instructions or advice. Roche Diagnostics has a device that checks coagulents. CardioChek markets a cholesterol tester. Athelas is developing a device that does a 60-second check on cancer patients for an array of diseases. Silicon Valley startup Theranos has had a high-profile roller-coaster ride with its own finger-prick device that promised a battery of quick, inexpensive blood tests. 

What makes Drawbridge different, GE Venutres said, is that the blood test is done in a traditional blood lab, with all the technology and infrastructure there, rather than in a portable consumer device. 

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