Test identifies all viruses and bacteria that affect an animal with one sample

(07-02-2022) 'I consider the traditional way of diagnostic testing the reversed world,' says Ghent University Professor Hans Nauwynck. 'Our test immediately tells you which virus or bacterium an animal is infected with. That is much more complete.'

His passion for animal health and frustration for the way diagnostic testing was done led him to look further. With the help of one of his postdocs, Sebastiaan Theuns, Nauwynck found the solution. Together they founded PathoSense, a Ghent University spin-off that created a revolutionary and complete diagnostic test. With one sample they can now identify all viruses and bacteria that affect an animal. 

From frustration to solution

'As a student I already had problems with the way veterinarians made diagnoses,' Professor Hans Nauwynck starts when we ask him how PathoSense started. The frustration is clearly great and the passion to find a solution even greater. But what exactly is the problem in diagnosing infectious diseases? 'There are different types of tests to determine which pathogen (virus or bacterium) is affecting an animal. Just think of the PCR tests, which we are all familiar with because of Covid-19. But if you use all those technologies, you have to know in advance which pathogen it is. Only then can you perform a test to know if you are right, and in 90% of the cases it is negative again. Then the question arises: what is it then? I consider that the inverted world.'

Nauwynck found the solution thanks to one of his postdocs, Sebastiaan Theuns. 'At some point, a small, affordable device came on the market to analyze the genetic code (DNA/RNA) of pathogens. Because of that limited investment, we decided to take the plunge. And the results were impressive from the start. In our first tests in 2017, we were able to immediately detect viruses without having to make a pre-selection. We also knew immediately which variants were involved.'

That was the missing link in the PathoSense story for Nauwynck and Theuns. ‘If that is possible, then why are we still fiddling with all those different tests, we thought. With this device you got an overview of everything that was in it on the basis of one sample. You could identify all viruses, and later all bacteria as well.'

From idea to product

All these elements together got the valorization ball rolling. 'We look at all pathogens. The test tells us whether an animal is infected with a virus or a bacterium. You don't have to exclude anything in advance. That is much more reliable. You can work out or adapt a prevention or treatment strategy in a much more targeted way. It also provides financial support. With this one test you get a complete overview. Otherwise, people sometimes continue to test in order to arrive at a result, so that the costs can rise very much and there is a very good chance that in the end they still do not know what the problem is,' says Sebastiaan Theuns.

'We didn't stop there when setting up the spin-off. We wanted to investigate how we could simplify the way of testing. Carrying out tests is still a lot of paperwork today. As a veterinarian, you have to indicate on a form which virus you want to investigate, those samples go to a lab, the results have to be returned to the veterinarian,... That can be simpler, so we work with a handy app, in which you follow everything on the fly. The commitment to digitization does not alter the fact that we still find personal support important. Our veterinary experts provide an interpretation of the findings with each analysis.'

With the help of the Industrial Research Fund (IOF), Nauwynck and Theuns were also able to develop a new swab for collecting samples. These resources from the Flemish government allow universities to create leverage for the commercialization of promising technology through project financing and domain-specific business developers. 'With this funding, we were able to further develop our prototype. Samples that are collected very impurely by veterinarians in practice are now received in a very standardized manner. The purity of the sample collection based on these patented swabs ensures that the analysis can proceed faster.'

From left to right prof. Hans Nauwynck, co-founder, Nick Vereecke, Jannes Sauer, Paulien Victor, Gauthier Danneels, Sieglinde Coppens, Marthe Pauwels, Dr. Sebastiaan Theuns, CEO & co-founder

From researcher to entrepreneur

Things have been going fast for Hans Nauwynck and Sebastiaan Theuns since PathoSense was founded. Their team has now grown to seven people, their radius of action has expanded from Belgium to the neighboring countries and is steadily expanding. And the ambitions are big. 'We want to put our technology on the map worldwide and further expand its possibilities,' confirms Theuns. To this end, they not only focus on developing a network of partner labs, but also on automation. 'By deploying robots to process the samples and monitor data analysis via cloud storage, we can scale up further.'

The core of the company remains mapping the genetic codes of viruses. 'Viruses evolve continually. They are constantly changing due to the conditions they are exposed to. It is important to monitor these constant changes and compare them with existing DNA sequences of viruses, so that you can detect whether it is a completely new virus or an adaptation of an existing one.'

'It remains difficult to find a good balance,' Theuns says candidly. ‘As an academic you have a lot of freedom to research things, in business you have to become concrete much faster, because it has to be profitable. In your academic career you are not often confronted with business economic parameters. That knowledge and that switch in mindset naturally grow organically, but you have to be able to surround yourself with the right people who believe in your project. For this we owe a lot to KBC Start'it and to VLAIO.'

‘It is also not easy to distance yourself from the daily research activities when interesting samples suddenly arrive. But at the same time, it is very important to continue to focus strongly on R&D to keep your technology up-to-date. It's that spread stance that keeps you sharp. It is on the basis of that interaction that you make decisions and map out a direction for your company. Because you see things change. Just think of the increasingly important role that co-infections play, with different infections leading to complex disorders. Or the whole discussion about antibiotic resistance. If we can clearly determine whether a disease is in a viral or bacterial phase, we can also use antibiotics much more specifically and limit resistance. If we can use our technology to create a dashboard of infections circulating in different animal species, you can intervene more quickly to limit the spread and possible epidemics,' concludes Hans Nauwynck. It is clear that the ambitions are far reaching.

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