'Faster, cheaper' way to find DNA

SINGAPORE - Locating particular pieces of deoxyribonucleic acid, more commonly known as DNA, is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. But biomedical instrumentation company JN Medsys has made the task easier, cheaper and faster.

It has come up with a system to perform digital polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect DNA.

JN Medsys founder and chief executive Johnson Ng said the entire process lasts under 2½ hours with his system compared with up to five hours in others.

The potential for digital PCR is enormous as it can be used in areas ranging from clinical diagnostics to detection of the HIV virus or super- resistant tuberculosis, said Dr Ng, 36, who holds a PhD in bioengineering.

He said that digital PCR can be used to detect rare strains of DNA better than normal PCR.

"The beauty of it is that it can be used for clinical diagnostics to diagnose cancer or infectious diseases, which the normal PCR technique may not be able to pick up, and require a lot of accuracy and precision," said Dr Ng.

"Digital PCR is very precise and getting very popular. But right now, there are very few instruments that can perform this technique."

Worldwide, there are only four companies selling these instruments, such as American firm Fluidigm, which introduced its first commercial system in 2006.

And Dr Ng is gunning for JN Medsys - which has $1 million in capital - to be the fifth player in the market.

Another advantage of the system, Dr Ng said, is that a non-invasive test can be carried out instead of having to extract a tumour to detect a disease. This is made possible as researchers have discovered that DNA from a tumour can be found in a patient's blood.

Similarly, if foetal DNA can be detected in the mother's blood during pregnancy, non-invasive tests can be carried out in advance to spot diseases such as Down syndrome.

Dr Ng said just a few years ago, many people have never heard of the technology. "It was very exciting to me, so I thought of a way to make it cheaper, faster, simpler," he added.

Fuelled by this idea, Dr Ng left his first job as project manager at local biomedical-device start-up Biochip Devises and registered JN Medsys on Christmas Day in 2010. He also asked his long-time friend, Mr Teu Koon Kiat, 36, to come on board as research and development director in July last year.

The two men have known each other since they were track-and-field rivals in different junior colleges. Mr Teu was previously an R&D manager at Biosensors Interventional Technologies, which makes heart stents.

Mr Teu joked that he had to be persuaded by Dr Ng because he initially wanted to take a long break after resigning from Biosensors. But he was convinced that Dr Ng was on the right track with the start-up. He said: "Johnson knows what he's talking about."

On the partnership, Dr Ng, who is married with two daughters, said: "It's more fun than stressful. We have some disagreements but we know it's for the sake of the company and it helps that we're both quite easy-going."

The first-time entrepreneur had always thought he would pursue a career in research instead of setting up a company. But his stint at Biochip Devises sparked in him a zest for being an entrepreneur.

Dr Ng put all $25,000 of his savings into the business. The going was tough initially, and on some days his bank account was nearly empty as he awaited funding from investors.

Eventually, Spring Singapore was sold on the idea of digital PCR and funded the company. Camtech, a firm that assists promising start-ups in the scientific fields, also became an investor.

Camtech executive director Kuok Meng-Han, 36, said his company was keen because of Dr Ng's strong vision for JN Medsys.

Dr Kuok said: "His passion really comes across very strongly. The company has managed to meet the technical milestones so far."

Dr Ng plans to target the research industry initially and the diagnostic market at a later stage, and sell JN Medsys' system for around $50,000. In comparison, competing systems come with price tags ranging from $100,000 to $200,000.

Dr Ng is not resting on his laurels and is already looking for another breakthrough.

"I am already planning the second version of our first product but that will take another two years," he said.

rachaelb@sph.com.sg


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