Lab Rat: An iPhone accessory that reveals genomic secrets

    Biomeme's PCR units hold the promise of at-home genetic testing. (Charlie Kaier/for WHYY)

    Biomeme's PCR units hold the promise of at-home genetic testing. (Charlie Kaier/for WHYY)

    A Philly startup promises a look into your future health. Question is, do you really want to see it? Our Lab Rat does.

    As part of our occasional series Lab Rat, we sent Pulse contributor and Technically Philly Editor-in-Chief Zack Seward to a local startup that’s making it easier for you to learn about your own DNA.

    Biomeme is situated right in the heart of “Nerd Street“—that stretch of North 3rd in Old City, Philadelphia known for its beat-up lofts packed with software developers. And for a growing biotech startup with the big-name backing of celebrity investor Mark Cuban, Biomeme’s HQ is refreshingly homey.

    After all, the company is working to turn your iPhone into a DIY diagnostics lab, with the help of a piece of hardware that kind of looks like a brick-sized iPod dock.

    “You can think of PCR as a targeted photocopy machine for DNA,” said Biomeme cofounder Max Perelman, explaining the technology behind the device. “We’re looking for a specific thing, this isn’t sequencing.”

    As another cofounder, Jesse vanWestrienen, explains, the company’s pint-size PCR unit performs a three-step dance: It multiplies the specific piece of DNA you’re looking for, the iPhone’s camera then analyzes it and its computing power helps make sense of things.

    “Everybody has a genome, and you can have access to this particular test anytime, anywhere,” vanWestrienen said.

    That’s the vision behind Biomeme—revealing things about your genome that could one day impact your health. And I’m here to give it a spin.

    The process begins when I swish some fluid around my gums and scan my DNA for a specific gene that could tell me things I’m not sure I want to know about my self. Mutations in my MTHFR gene, I know going into this, may make me more susceptible to certain types of vascular disease, dementia, colon cancer, even leukemia.

    “Personally it doesn’t scare me at all, it excites me,” Perelman said, in response to a suddenly nervous reporter. “For example, specifically with MTHFR, I was really excited. I knew that cardiovascular disease ran in my family, but I didn’t know why, I didn’t know how, and it was really interesting to bring in my family members and have them test themselves.”

    If Perelman’s seven-year-old daughter can do it, he assured me, so could I.

    “Anybody can do it themselves and explore an aspect of their genome,” Perelman said. “This is just a beginning of the conversation, of the exploration…and I hope you enjoy the ride.”

    The test starts with a little cup of fluid—a special mouthwash that picks up enough DNA for me to parse into a set of plastic vials. The kit itself has special pipettes and plastic syringes that do the same thing as big pieces of lab equipment, vanWestrienen explains.

    After a high-school biology flashback, you pop open the Biomeme device, drop in three tiny vials, type in a few things on the iPhone attached therein and voilà.

    “Begin experiment!”

    “So now it’s started,” vanWestrienen said. “Come back in about 45 minutes.”

    That’s the hard part.

    You’ll have to listen to the audio to see how it turned out.

    Do you want take the test? The Biomeme device isn’t for sale yet, but the company is beginning to demo its product at events. For $20, you can learn a bit about your own genome at next month’s First Friday event in Old City.

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