When former computer scientist Paul Carboon came across Dr Flavia Huygens’ innovative pathogen identification process, known as InfectID, he immediately understood its potential.
With his background in programming, the mathematical basis that underpinned the novel diagnostic test to identify potentially deadly sepsis-causing pathogens (infectious germs) made perfect sense.
Paul suggested he and Flavia set up a company to move InfectID to human trials and commercialisation. For two years, the pair worked to extract the intellectual property from the academic institution claiming ownership, but patience paid off and they patented the technology in Australia.
While he had faith in the likelihood of success, Paul admits quitting his full-time job was nerve wracking.
“This technology had immense potential, but there’s never an obvious time to throw everything you have at it,” he said.
“I had enough money in the bank to get me through for seven months and with a family to support, I knew I had to get out and raise some capital.”
Paul tapped family and friends for that initial raising, being careful not to let anyone over-commit. It worked. Within months, Microbio had secured $1.1 million in seed funding which was used to establish a research team and take InfectID to pre-clinical testing.
Tackling a common killer
Sepsis occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to fight off infection and turns on itself. Within a short space of time, it can evolve to severe levels and cause progressive organ failure. Finally, the body goes into toxic shock, causing blood pressure to drop to dangerously low levels.
Sepsis is one of the most common causes of hospitalisation in the developed world. It can be caused by a broad range of pathogens and the mortality rate from severe sepsis is around 30 per cent.
There is currently no definitive, commercially available test that looks for the sepsis-causing infection. Instead, medical professionals look for signs and symptoms and may use a combination of blood tests including blood culture analysis to confirm their initial diagnosis.
The likelihood of mortality from sepsis increases by an average 7 per cent every hour, meaning time is of the essence to identify and treat the underlying cause. The problem with blood culture analysis is that it can take up to 36 hours to return results. And even then, it is only 40-50 per cent accurate in identifying the problem.
InfectID uses a different approach, known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to identify specific organisms. In initial laboratory tests, the research team was able to identify, with more than 99 per cent accuracy, the 25 most common pathogens that cause sepsis.
A Series A capital raise was completed in 2020, securing $2.3 million to establish quality management and manufacturing. Further pre-clinical trials took place and from 380 blood samples, the Microbio team identified 100 per cent of critical cases.
Repurposing for COVID
With the COVID pandemic in full swing, Paul says Microbio turned its attention to apply the technology to developing a PCR test that could detect COVID-19.
Unlike some current diagnostic tests that seek to identify specific sub-genomes, Microbio once again approached the challenge differently.
“We lined up all the SARS varieties (of which COVID-19 is one) and identified a common parent genome,” he said.
“Existing tests look for the genomic material of the virus itself, and often the specific strains, but we’re looking for something that essentially acts like a placenta to which the virus cells attach.
“These are the things the immune system needs to kill to stop the virus spreading and with a lot of viruses, including COVID 19, the body doesn’t realise it is infected until trillions of virus cells have been produced. In a healthy person, that is usually around day five to seven of being infected.”
Paul says while existing PCR tests cannot identify the virus until those trillions of cells exist, the Microbio version can identify very small numbers of the “placentas”.
“While there is no known cure for COVID, the most effective option is to diagnose it early and isolate patients until they are no longer infectious,” Paul said.
The Microbio COVID test is currently undergoing trials in India, where researchers claim it is the most effective and accurate diagnostic tool they have come across. Trials are expected to commence in Australia soon.
Path to revenue
One of the reasons Microbio is focused on the Indian market, apart from the escalating number of cases, is that the technology is low cost, runs on open systems and requires no specialised hardware to be manufactured.
In other words, according to Paul, diagnostic work can be completed in the most rudimentary laboratory settings, meaning it is well suited to developing markets.
Paul says a third capital raise, which will in part fund Australian trials and aim to take the technology to market, is underway. While the first and second raisings relied largely on family and friends, Microbio is approaching the broader market to identify high-net worth, strategic investors prepared to help take the company to listing.
“We’re intending to remain unlisted until we can generate sustainable revenue,” he said.
“On current projections, and pending the outcomes of the advanced trials underway in India, we expect to start generating revenue this calendar year.”
Work continues on the commercialisation of InfectID too, something Paul believes will be a significant global game changer for diagnosing and effectively responding to sepsis.