First Molecular Electronic Chip “Revolutionizes” Disease Testing, Screens Many Diseases at Once from Portable Device

May 07, 2020 by Gary Elinoff

Inspired by a need for faster COVID-19 testing, two research groups have hit a breakthrough: a new CMOS biosensor chip that promises rapid, handheld DNA sequencing and viral/antibody testing.

What if we could test many infectious diseases or viral strains at once on a handheld device? While it sounds like futuristic technology, two companies—Roswell Biotechnologies and Imec—may have found the first step in such a solution. Both partners saw a pressing need for rapid COVID-19 testing and dove into molecular electronics research.


Roswell Biotechnologies team

Roswell Biotechnologies team. Screenshot used courtesy of Roswell Biotechnologies

Together, they claim to have developed the first molecular electronics biosensor chip for infectious disease surveillance, like that of the current pandemic. This technology may also forge precision medicine and DNA storage forward.


How Are EEs Involved in Precision Medicine?

In a recent article, long-time AAC contributor Robert Keim discussed the healthcare conundrum electrical engineers are placed in when designing life-saving medical devices used to treat chronic illness. In a similar branch of this discussion, Roswell Biotechnologies explains that the company feels driven by the goal of precision medicine or the belief that medical treatment should be tailored to the individual.

How exactly does the Roswell-Imec partnership contribute to this effort at the silicon level?


The "First Molecular Electronic Chip"

Roswell Biotechnologies has developed what it claims is the "first molecular electronic chip,” employing nano-fabrication to deploy molecular sensing capabilities directly onto CMOS ICs. The researchers directly deployed sensing capability onto a CMOS chip that, with Imec's help, can be mass-manufactured and commercialized. Roswell’s first prototype of the molecular electronic chip was designed to read DNA.


Roswell's molecular electronic chip

Roswell's molecular electronic chip. Image used courtesy of Roswell Biotechnologies


Paul Mola, Roswell Biotechnologies’ president and CEO, describes his incentive in the ongoing project: "The urgent need for a new generation of rapid, low-cost, consumer surveillance and diagnostics tools has been made extremely clear in the current COVID-19 pandemic"

He continues, “In that area, the Roswell molecular electronic platform will transform the way infectious diseases are detected with powerful new capabilities that enable rapid screening of many infectious diseases at once, or many viral strains, with portable or handheld devices.”


Single Molecules Integrated onto CMOS Chips

Integrating a single molecular “switch” onto CMOS chips may change the game completely. This advance eliminates the chief bottleneck impeding the commercialization of molecular electronics. Roswell researchers have asserted that one of their ongoing projects has been to integrate molecules into nano-circuits on chips—but this endeavor has not been without its challenges. 


Molecular chip tech for DNA sequencing and DNA data storage

Roswell Biotechnologies describes its molecular electronics CMOS platform as "disruptive" technology that can be used for DNA sequencing and DNA data storage. Image used courtesy of Roswell Biotechnologies


Roswell Biotechnologies’ chief scientific officer, Dr. Barry Merriman, explains, “Although molecular electronics has long been hailed as a scientific breakthrough, its commercial viability has required the technology to be put on a standard semiconductor chip.” 

Dr. Merriman says that with Imec's experience in semiconductor manufacturing and their biosensor technology, they feel confident in their ability to commercialize molecular electronics. 


Genome Sequencing Within an Hour

The molecular electronics technology the two teams developed has been used in one iteration within a device called the ENDSeq System. This system conducts electronic nano-device sequencing to reduce the time to sequence a human genome from days to minutes. It accomplishes this using direct electrical sensing delivered "at the speed of natural DNA synthesis."


Platform ENDSeq System

Platform ENDSeq System, which can conduct genome sequencing quickly. Image used courtesy of Roswell Biotechnologies


Dr. James M Tour, an expert in molecular electronics from Rice University, played an important part in the Roswell research team. He explains that the molecular electronic chip is as small as it will ever get since it's based on a single molecule.

Dr. Tour also assured that the team can handle all the big data that comes with this chip and the associated ENDSeq System using FPGAs, GPUs, multi-core CPUs, and high-speed data buses to process and deliver information about the human genome within an hour. Dr. Tour also reveals that the team has exabyte-scale data storage.

Roswell and Imec believe that they have, essentially, proved the concept. Initial commercial products are expected to be online by early next year.


A Holy Grail for Disease Testing?

The world of electronics is full of superlatives—"one-of-a-kinds" and "breakthroughs." But due to the present pandemic, the potential of the molecular electronic chip stands head and shoulders above the rest. If molecular “switches” can truly be melded onto silicon chips, once production scales up, testing for COVID-19 may enter a completely new phase.

This method has the potential to look for the genetic sequence of the COVID-19 virus, its antigens, and its associated antibodies, and in turn, may help guide public health decisions. If another dangerous pathogen emerges, the new biochip can be refitted with a new set of switches targeting that offender.



Do you work in biotechnology? If so, have you seen any design shifts to respond to COVID-19 demands? Share your experience in the comments below.