Bug hunt

Research going on quietly inside a nondescript Hubbard building is setting a new worldwide standard for the speed in which infectious disease can be diagnosed or dangerous microorganisms like tuberculosis, anthrax or group B streptococcus can be detected.

The developing rapid detection process means quicker diagnosis, quicker treatment and, in many cases, a new way of thinking, especially for the population of third-world countries, said Bret Barnhizer, chief executive officer of Nanologix.

“That’s a big deal. That’s a huge deal. No one in the history of the world has ever been able to do it this fast,” Barnhizer said during a recent interview and tour of the facility.

Other than the simple sign above the door of a building tucked in a picturesque historical setting along North Main Street, most passersby likely have little knowledge of the impact being made by research and development inside.

In addition to the medical field, the company tests and manufactures products used by homeland security and U.S. military for fast detection of microorganisms like anthrax or plague and in the food and beverage industry to detect the presence of bacteria like salmonella or E.coli.

“Salmonella results took many days, then seven days. Now it’s under an hour,” Barnhizer said. That allows producers to get quick results and ship the products to market faster, translating to a huge dollar savings.

While the company has been in existence for about two decades, it’s only in recent years under Barnhizer’s direction that Nanologix has turned its focus to rapid detection methods.

Other than serving as a medic during two tours of duty in the Vietnam War and then providing medical aid to Vietnamese civilians, Barnhizer said he had little knowledge of microorganism detection. And after working 25 years in the oil and gas industry, his involvement in the biotechnology company came as a new adventure.

The Mahoning County native had traveled the world, most recently living in Europe before returning to the area to invest in the company that had been operating out of a physician’s office in Sharon, Pa. Seeing the growth potential, Barnhizer said he eventually took over as CEO in 2007.

Since then, one of the company’s biggest successes includes perfecting technology to speed the detection of TB from more than 21 days previously to now as quick as 90 minutes. Cholera, plague and anthrax, which traditionally took a day or two to detect in a culture, now can be detected in less than an hour, according to literature provided by the company.

Tests performed on all pregnant women worldwide for group B streptococcus, that previously had taken two to three days for results, now can be obtained in less than an hour.

Despite the speed, Nanologix research and development scientist Michelle Durkin is proud of the accuracy.

“We thought we were getting false positives, but we found we were actually picking up other strains of group B strep that other major labs weren’t detecting before,” Durkin said.

The company also has turned its focus on faster detection of TB, a disease that kills more than a million people a year worldwide. With quicker results, Barnhizer hopes residents of third-world countries, who often don’t rate personal health as important as residents of countries like the U.S., will be able to monitor improving health during lengthy antibiotic treatments in a close-to-real-time manner.

“This ability could provide major assistance in the ongoing campaign to combat the scourge of tuberculosis,” Barnhizer said, noting his desire to work with the World Health Organization to eradicate TB.

When Nanologix’s customers request products they can use to test for various bacteria in the field, Durkin purchases the bacteria from suppliers and uses it to run tests inside the lab.

“We test the product to make sure it works like it is supposed to with all the bacteria,” she said.

After that, the challenge becomes safe shipping.

“The goal is to fit it into a kit,” Durkin said.

Achieving that goal has been simplified recently with the creation of the “flat-pack,” specialized vacuum-sealed packaging invented and patented by Barnhizer. It enables Nanologix to easily preserve, ship and store kits of petri dishes prepared inside the Hubbard laboratory.

And while the company is small – about 12 employees – its developing rapid detection niche is triggering growth. In December the company announced it had struck an exclusive deal with a Saudi Arabian company to distribute NanoLogix products in the Arabian Gulf region. Nanologix also is in negotiations with groups and companies in Europe, Asia and Africa about additional distribution outlets and manufacturing options.

Barnhizer now is planning to add a sales team by the end of summer to help market the products.

“We are small, but ideally, we wont be,” Barnhizer said. “We are small, but we are growing.”