New device uses worms to detect toxins

As Portland and other cities grapple with the fallout from environmental pollutants, a Eugene company develops a natural method to test for environmental toxins.

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The portable device contains transparent worms that detect and reflect the presence of toxins in water. It was developed by NemaMetrix, a Eugene-based company that created a similar application for drug screening called the ScreenChip.

“What we’ve developed is a ‘canary in the coal mine’ that can detect a broad range of environmental toxins by monitoring the heart-like pump in a simple organism,” says Matt Beaudet, CEO of NemaMetrix.

These organisms, Caenorhabditis elegans, are genetically and neurophysiologically similar to humans.

“The nematode reacts to a broad range of toxins, providing us with a broadly sensitive detector,” Beaudet says.

Scientists can monitor electrical signals from the nematode and detect abnormalities that indicate the presence of a toxic substance.

“Because it reacts quickly, it gives us a rapid indication when there is a problem,” he says. “Even more important is that the animal’s entire lifespan is just two weeks, which means looking for toxins that have chronic or developmental effects, rather than just acute, can be found in a short amount of time.”

Beaudet says existing testing technologies are limited to specific contaminants.

“What happens when people are unsure about the specific source of the contaminant, or they have general concerns?”

People who live near railroad tracks or fracking operations, for example, might be worried about runoff. The technology would also be useful in countries lacking stringent environmental regulations, Beaudet says.

The new device should be ready mid-2017, but the worms can already be used to test for toxins. New funding from Oregon BEST will help NemaMetrix refine the process and make it easier to use.Screenchip

“We are currently focusing on two key areas. The first is testing samples already known to contain toxins in order to establish a baseline. The second is automating the system so it can be used in the field (vs. only in a lab) and by technicians who don’t need as much training as more traditional testing methods require.

The project is part of a larger effort “to democratize physiological biology,” Beaudet says. “Creating a new system that is inexpensive, requires minimal specialized training or skills, and provides direct quantifiable insights into the neurophysiology of a whole organism.”

Beaudet says news reports about toxic chemicals in the air and water have intensified interest in quick and simple testing methods.

“Given the timing, our product might play a significant role as interest in detecting toxins in smaller and smaller amounts — and the impact these toxins have across a human lifecycle — continues to grow,” he says.