Abe Oommen set out to create a portable testing platform that was so easy to use a farmer could take it into the field to check livestock for diseases such as African swine fever.
Earlier this year, however, he and his colleagues at MatMaCorp in Lincoln started getting calls from friends and colleagues in rural Nebraska who were facing long wait times for COVID-19 test results.
MatMaCorp, which Oommen founded in 2014, quickly developed a test for COVID-19 that could be run on its portable lab, which can fit in a backpack.
“The little black box idea was, ‘Can you take useful data and make it available to a farmer, or in this case a physician,’ ” said Oommen, a former University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor. “That is where we are headed.”
Last month, MatMaCorp became one of nine companies sharing $129.3 million in funding the National Institutes of Health is putting toward speeding the development, commercialization and implementation of COVID-19 testing technologies through its Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative. Oommen declined to say how much of the total the company will receive.
The NIH announced a third round of awards Tuesday, bringing the total investment to $476.4 million.
“Each of the technologies emerging from the RADx initiative will play a critical role in extending accessibility to testing in diverse settings,” Dr. Francis Collins, the agency’s director, said in a statement.
Instead of doctors’ offices, however, MatMaCorp is aiming to place its device, the Solas 8, in the laboratories of smaller, rural hospitals that are several hours’ drive from the nearest large lab.
Kearney Regional Medical Center in Kearney already is testing the device. If it passes muster, the hospital could start using the machine to screen employees who may have had a high-risk exposure, said Shanna Stofer, the hospital’s director of ancillary services and patient safety.
MatMaCorp has applied for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Once the company receives approval, the hospital could begin testing people who come in on an outpatient basis. So far, the test is performing well.
“We just want to make sure it’s a good test and can turn out a good result,” Stofer said.
Kearney Regional currently sends most tests to the regional laboratory at the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus, which requires sending samples to Omaha by courier. The turnaround is typically between 48 and 72 hours.
The hospital has another rapid testing platform, she said. But supplies have been limited, and the machine has primarily been used for hospital patients. Having a second rapid testing platform would allow the hospital to provide outpatients with results more quickly.
“We’re super excited about this opportunity,” Stofer said.
MatMaCorp’s device, in fact, uses the same technology — polymerase chain reaction, or PCR — used by the larger platforms. However, it can run just six tests at a time, making it suitable for labs that run small batches of tests. A touch screen on the front guides users through step-by-step instructions.
“This supports our focus on underserved areas,” Oommen wrote in an email. “Rural labs will typically have lower budgets and test volumes that preclude them from purchasing the expensive platforms that are on the market.”
The devices would sell for about $9,500, and individual tests for about $25 each. The test cost is comparable to the cost of the rapid antigen tests on the market.
MatMaCorp previously has collaborated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a test for bovine congestive heart failure and with the Department of Homeland Security on a test for African swine fever.
Oommen, a molecular biologist, helped launch another high-tech firm in Lincoln. GeneSeek, now a subsidiary of Lansing, Michigan-based Neogen, specializes in identifying genetic traits sought by livestock breeders.
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