A Rice University bioengineering and nanoscale physics student interning at biotech startup firm Nano3D Biosciences (n3D) in Houston, Texas, has written an iPod app to assist development of a high-throughput method to test for drug toxicity.
The new assay method, which n3D calls “BiO Assay,” uses the free iPod app to collect time-lapse images of 3-D cell cultures that have been exposed to varying levels of a drug. Those images are then fed through an analytical program that measures each sample and creates time-lapse movies, graphs and charts of the drug’s cytotoxic profile.
A research paper about the new method was recently published in Nature’s open-access journal Scientific Report.
“It’s been estimated that improving the accuracy of early cytotoxicity screenings by even 10 percent could save drug companies as much as $100 million per drug,” said one of the paper’s co-authors, n3D senior research scientist Hubert Tseng, PhD, in a Rice University media release.
Nano3D Biosciences’ president and chief scientific officer Glauco Souza says the company developed the BiO Assay out of necessity. Interns in the lab were spending hour after hour snapping photos of individual cell cultures on the microscope. Each experiment involved exposing a hundreds of cell cultures to varying doses of a drug. The microscopic images revealed how much smaller the culture became over time, as the toxic drug slowly killed off the cells in the colony. Each culture was grown in its own tiny chamber on standard plates that each contained 96 chambers. “Without looking in the microscope, just looking at the camera and clicking like a robot, it would take 20 minutes to take pictures of all 96 wells on one plate,” Mr. Souza notes. “To analyze that, all 96, with a ruler, took even longer.”
“We decided there had to be a better way, so we began experimenting with using an iPod,” Mr. Souza noted. “It was promising, but none of the available apps worked very well, so we decided we needed to make our own. I called Apple and asked them to give me the name of a developer here in Houston. When they heard where I was, they said, ‘Don’t [hire a developer]. Go to Rice University and get a couple of students instead. You’ll get a better app, and it will do exactly what you want.’ ”
Another of the Scientific Report paper’s co-authors, William Haisler, had just graduated from Rice and joined n3D as a graduate student intern. Haisler, who had done some Java coding in high school and written several programs during his time at Rice, volunteered to create the iPod app. However, he first had to learn a new programming language—Objective C—to write the app in.
“Apple provides a good amount of sample code, and it’s an object-oriented language like Java, so learning the language wasn’t too bad,” Haisler commented in the Rice U. release. “In terms of developing the app, the biggest challenge was using the tools to access the photo album and the camera. The troubleshooting was difficult because you don’t get full access because of how they use their security.”
Dr. Tseng says the team considered going with Android, which being an open platform a would have eliminated such issues, but the n3D team needed the standard hardware format that the iPod offered. Unlike Android handsets, every iPod is the same size and has the same camera location—two factors that were key for getting the repeatable, standardized results required for scientific experiments.