NZ innovation to provide quicker, cheaper, more effective blood tests

An Auckland-based biochemist couple’s innovative new technology is set to simplify and quicken the way immuno-diagnostic tests are conducted both in humans and animals across the world – at costs far less than existing methods.

The technology that Anand and Sarita Kumble began developing in a garage about three years ago can test a drop of blood for a whole range of diseases using simple, low cost equipment and procedures making it attractive especially for the healthcare systems of the developing world where diagnostic labs are poorly equipped.

The lab end equipment comprises a set of panels developed using their technology and a PC loaded with proprietary software that detects diseases by assessing micro patterns that the blood being tested makes with different sets of reagents that are microscopically embedded in the panels.

Specific kits can test for diseases ranging from HIV, hepatitis B and C to rheumatic hear disease, tuberculosis and almost anything in between.

In the past few months, their company Pictor, has signed deals that could potentially catapult it into the big league of the diagnostics business in India, Europe, the US and beyond.

In India it has partnered with the Reliance group, one of the country’s biggest business houses, and successfully beta tested kits for testing arthritis.

Pictor has also been commissioned by one of the world’s largest farm animal diagnostic test manufacturers and a major Swedish autoimmune diagnostics company to develop more cost-effective and simpler testing techniques using its patented technology.

If successful, these companies will distribute the kits to their markets in Europe and the US.

“Pictor is now on the cusp of commercialisation,” Dr Anand Kumble says. “We’re now in discussions with Reliance on the manufacturing of the panels and kits, which we propose to do here in Auckland as long as the volumes are manageable.”

The diagnostic market in India is estimated at $200 million – of which 34% is the immunodiagnostic segment – and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 10 to 15%. Worldwide, the market for autoimmune disease (HIV, rheumatoid arthritis) testing is over $400 million.

Anand and Sarita met while pursuing their doctorates in biochemistry at Mumbai University, then married and moved to the US to study and work at Stanford University (Anand worked with celebrated geneticist and Nobel laureate Arthur Konberg) and a few high technology immunodiagnostic firms in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Work first brought Dr Anand to New Zealand in 1995 when Genesis Research hired him as one of its first biotechnologists. He went back to the US two years later returning intermittently and finally moved back to Auckland in 2005. “New Zealand is a country we’d grown to love,” he said.

The couple soon met up with Kiwi veterinarian Sandy Ferguson who helped raise the first round of capital to set up Pictor. “A quick, easy and effective method to test large herds of cattle was in Sandy’s wish list for many years,” Dr Anand said.

They got together a band of investors and raised $90,000, which was matched by New Zealand government funding agency Foundation for Research Science and Technology (FRST).

A second round of $140,000 helped Pictor move from the garage to the present Parnell premises which houses Pictor’s research and development lab. Late last year, the company raised a further 460,000 from investors and FRST.

While Dr Anand is highly appreciative of help from the government and the NZTE, he is unsure if the local venture capital industry has the nous to help take this project to its global potential.

Meanwhile Pictor is being wooed by venture firms from San Francisco to Mumbai and Bangalore but for now the Kumbles want to give New Zealand their best shot and plan to flag off Pictor’s manufacturing operations from Auckland.

Anand and Sarita Kumble

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This innitiative will help save lives and it is a step forward in the medical sector here in NZ.
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