By Bill Kisliuk
SELFA Inc., a healthcare technology company founded on research developed at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, in August won a $1.65 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Fast-Track award from the National Institutes of Health Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Co-founded by Chi On Chui, an associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at UCLA, SELFA is developing an in vitro diagnostic (IVD) platform with potential for transformational impact in clinical diagnostics. Specifically, the platform brings laboratory-quality biomolecular assays to point-of-care settings – such as clinics, ambulances or homes – for rapid diagnosis of heart attacks, acute infections and many other diseases.
SELFA, an acronym for Semiconductor Electronic Label-Free Assay, will allow patients or medical practitioners, using only a drop of blood, to get precise results on the spot rather than waiting hours to receive lab results.
SELFA’s devices consist of disposable cartridges and a portable reader, and are based on novel semiconductor nanowire field-effect transistor (FET) biosensor technology. The technology exhibits extraordinary sensitivity and is capable of quantifying tiny concentrations of protein, nucleic acid and small molecule biomarkers in bodily fluids such as blood or urine. Test results indicate that the SELFA technology is as much as 1,000 times more sensitive than current lab-based assays.
The first SELFA product launch will be a cardiac troponin assay, a test used millions of times a year for the detection of myocardial infarctions, or heart attacks, in patients presenting with acute coronary syndrome (ACS).
“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, and symptoms of ischemic heart disease drive countless patients to seek admittance to emergency rooms,” Chui said. “Our technology can improve the accuracy and speed of diagnosis of this life-threatening illness. It can also dramatically reduce the cost of care and ease the problem of emergency room overcrowding.”
SELFA was established in 2013 by Chui, former post-doctoral researcher Kyeoong-Sik Shin, and engineering entrepreneur Ira Deyhimy. The founders worked with the UCLA Engineering Institute for Technology Advancement (ITA), the school’s start-up incubator, to secure intellectual property based on the research and to form the company.
“The SBIR grant demonstrates that SELFA is on the way to developing technology that could benefit millions of people,” said Dwight Streit, director of ITA and the chair of the UCLA Materials Science and Engineering Department. “SELFA is just one example of how ITA and UCLA Engineering support entrepreneurial faculty and the university as a whole by helping to bring IP-protected innovations to the marketplace.”
The SBIR program invests federal research funds in companies seeking to address critical American priorities with technologies that have strong potential for commercialization. Eleven federal agencies participate in the SBIR program, including the Department of Health and Human Services, of which NIH is a part; NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce.
Normally, SBIR issues a single, six-month grant of $225,000 or less for companies in their early stages, and then later considers larger and longer grants to help bring the technology closer to commercialization. In this case, NIH simultaneously awarded SELFA Phase I and Phase II grants to be used over a two-and-a-half year period.