In 2022, the World Health Organization identified neurological disorders as the leading cause of disability and the second leading cause of death. Scientists still face major difficulties studying and understanding brain structure at the neural network level, which could hold the key to unlocking new treatments and cures for these disorders. A Maryland company wants to help scientists with that problem.
Diagnostic Biochips in Glen Burnie is developing tools that could make a difference in advancing research in electrophysiology — the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues — along with cloud-based software useful for making sense of the data they collect.
DBC’s products include plug and play hardware such as neural probes with compact high channel electrodes for deep structure and surface recordings, and a data acquisition box that can stream up to 512 channels of data and upload to the cloud for spike sorting and other analysis using software that supports remote collaboration.
The technology is helping laboratories funded by the National Institutes of Health find better treatments for neurological diseases like Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
“We know that Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects memory, but we don’t even know the basic workings of how memory is carried out in the brain,” said Brian Jameison, founder of DBC. “Diagnostic Biochips was founded to fix that … by bringing cutting edge tools to researchers and clinicians to fill in our knowledge of the brain and connect people to better cures and therapies.”
Moving the needle
Greg Alden, DBC’s president and CEO, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2010.
“I left my 25-year career in data networking and mobile infrastructure to see if we could bring technology to these neuro problems in a way that moves the needle somehow,” he said.
DBC builds complete systems with implantable sensors consisting of very fine microchips smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
The tools DBC produces can track electrical signals racing around the brain and even identify small, local circuit disruptions in the case of epilepsy before the disruption becomes a full-blown seizure.
“We’re able to interface with brains through implants in people or animals or cell cultures and probe the brain at the fundamental level of the electrical signals that make up the brain,” Jameison said. “It’s kind of like moving from the roar of the crowd outside M&T Bank Stadium to having a conversation with one of the Ravens fans in the stands.”
Alden compares DBC’s products as an Internet of Things for the brain.
“It’s a massive big data problem that’s more recently available to look at, because compute and storage platforms are finally big enough to do it,” he said.
Founded in 2013, DBC has about 20 employees, and relies on another 10 to 15 contractors for its supply chain and manufacturing processes. Its global customers include top research institutions like Johns Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and MIT.
The company built its expertise through its academic involvement with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, which conducts long-term research in fundamental neuroscience and imaging.
“Our strategy and sales are increasingly focused on clinical users who are much more closely linked to disease states, and one really important area is drug research,” Jameison said. “One of our large pharmaceutical customers is developing new Parkinson’s drugs that improve circuit function. Our devices let them thrown different formulations and compounds at the region of the brain targeted by these drugs and have a quantitative measure of whether they’re working or not.”
DBC’s products aren’t just helping researchers refine their abilities, they’re also making it easier for researchers across the globe to conduct large scale data collaboration.
As Diagnostic Biochips matures, it is now poised to bring its technology to bear in other fields of research, including organoids, self-organized three-dimensional tissue cultures derived from stem cells.
“We see that as a potential to do a lot of scaling in terms of testing and discoveries, especially for pharmaceutical companies,” Alden said. “That’s an area we’re seriously considering for investment.”
Although it’s not a medical device company, Alden said its technology could lead to implantable devices that can identify epilepsy seizures before they happen, and possibly smart, intelligently-administered closed loop devices for Parkinson’s that can distribute dopamine.
Jameison believes researchers are only scratching the surface of possibilities with DBC’s technology.
“When you hear folks like Elon Musk talking about a brain-computer interface for people with paralysis, what we do with the data coming out is a really important question,” he said. “I think we can get a lot of mileage out of that data.”
Neurological disorders represent the fastest scaling disease categories globally with a health care cost of about $1.5 to $2 trillion annually, Alden said.
“About 7 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s, and that’s expected to double in the next 10 years,” he said. “Less than 4% of Parkinson’s patients are treated by neurologists. When you think about the opportunity to help a lot of people on a global basis, there’s a huge amount of potential in large scale data that could change a lot of peoples’ lives. That’s our participation.”