By Amy Atkins
Q-LAAD looks like an acronym for a task force or government organization. It’s neither, but if the team at Boise-based startup Facible Biodiagnostics accomplish their mission, it could become as familiar to healthcare professionals as—and an invaluable tool in the war against—another acronym: COVID-19.
Although the technology is complicated, the goal is anything but.
Q-LAAD stands for Quantum-Logic Anazyme Detection and is the platform upon which a rapid COVID-19 test (technically, it’s a test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19) developed by Facible is based.The test has been developed to be “used with commercially available analyzers in hospitals and laboratories that fits within standard medical laboratory workflows, thus requiring minimal training or new expertise.” In addition, as of April 2020, “preliminary results demonstrated that the Q-LAAD test exceeds a minimum threshold of 95 percent accuracy, which makes it as or more accurate than most COVID-19 tests currently available.”
If you’re thinking you need a PhD in biology to fully understand Q-LAAD, you’re not wrong, and that is why Facible comprises several scientists, including Founder and CEO Dr. Steven Burden, who does have a PhD in biology: He received his doctorate in Biomolecular Science from Boise State University. He used a simple analogy to explain how Q-LAAD functions.
“It’s like a light switch,” he said. “Imagine you have a key, and this key turns the light switch on. That’s like what we’re doing. We’re programming different keys to turn the light on. So if you want to make a key to test CBD, or a key to test lead in water, or something that doesn’t exist in theory…the components we merge together make a plug-and-play system. We can just change out the domain or the key, and the light-up piece stays the same.”
Facible CMO Travis Nilsson suggested the applications are potentially countless.
“We are currently focused on human health, because that is something we are all passionate about,” he said. “That’s a pain point we’ve all felt. COVID-19 gave us an opportunity to start there, but with our technology, we can build these plug-and-play keys for a variety of industries. If you want to find out if your water is drinkable, we can build something.”
Interestingly, Facible itself is kind of an example of its own needs-based building methods.
The start-up was originally founded in May 2019 to test the amount of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) in CBD (Cannabidiol) oil. The idea was to develop tests for potency and efficacy for growers in order not to breach legal thresholds.
“We learned from a lot of industry sources and research that there was a huge gap in this area,” Nilsson said. “And because CBD was so new, it was the ‘wild wild west.’ It was an easy entry point for us, and it was something we were confident we could do quickly. That’s the path we were headed down until…” he said, trailing off with a laugh.
Facible was ready to go with the THC/CBD testing (there is even a prototype of that original test sitting on a shelf somewhere) but when the pandemic hit, the scientists wanted to—and knew they could—turn what they had learned into something bigger.
“Our passion here is human health,” Burden said. “Almost all of our PhDs are molecular biologists from Boise State who did their doctorate work in human health. That’s where we wanted to be, so this was an opportunity for us to pivot into a space that accelerated our development by a year or two,” he said. “It really put the gas pedal down, and we really made a lot of improvements really quick.”
Some of those improvements may mean inestimable differences in how COVID-19 patients are diagnosed in the near future. While Facible’s test has the same high sensitivity as current tests, it has higher throughput, so more people can be tested in much less time.
“About 29 people can be tested in 20 minutes,” Burden said. “It was geared toward cases in which people need to screen large populations quickly: cruise lines, manufacturing plants, warehouses. This is where we really focused our development.”
As innovative and revolutionary as Facible’s Q-LAAD testing is, a biotechnological product created by even the most dedicated, motivated, highly intelligent people may never see the light of day—or a diagnostic testing lab—without funding and government approval. Neither has been particularly easy for Facible, but it has been a bit less rocky thanks to grants from the National Institutes of Health and FDA regulatory processes easing up via the Emergency Use Authorization for COVID-related technology.
“It’s a nascent technology,” Burden said. “We’ll be the first ones through the FDA regulations. There’s no other technology like this that has been through the FDA application process or has received approval.”
That’s not to say the team at Facible hasn’t had to deal with their share of red tape, but they go back before the FDA in about a month, and they are hopeful it won’t be much longer before Q-LAAD testing is on the market. And when it is, Burden and his team will most likely accomplish their ambitious yet feasible goal.
“We’re going to change the world,” he said.