By Robert Guttersohn
The city’s northside, where antique railroad box cars rest and the art-deco style Emerald Diner serves travelers coming from Interstate 80, seems an odd place for a lab on the verge of a possible scientific breakthrough.
But when the Cincinnati business incubator in which Nanologix, a Mahoning Valley-based biotech company, shared a lab lost its lease, Nanologix was given two months to find another location.
This happened while the company was in the process of seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its BioNanoPore membrane filter, which tests show drastically cut the detection time of many harmful bacteria.
Bret Barnhizer, Nanologix CEO, took over the company four and a half years ago.
“It was essentially a hobby in a doctor’s office,” Barnhizer said of the company while it was still based out of Pennsylvania.
He got involved in the company while looking to invest in alternative energies. At that time, the company was exploring ways to separate hydrogen from waste.
He became company CEO and redirected it toward the development of BNP.
BNP, a membrane which looks like a circular plastic sheet to the naked eye, holds millions of smaller-than-micro-level holes. These holes allow fluid and nutrients to pass through but not cells, allowing bacteria to grow and take on the staining fluid more efficiently, thereby leading to faster detection.
In November, a third-party lab in Texas found the filter led to a four-day identification of tuberculosis, a process that normally takes 21 days.
The University of Texas Health Science Center is working on a clinical study using another Nanologix product — BioNanoFilter, a square filter paper, for detecting Strep B in pregnant women within two hours, allowing doctors to prescribe the correct antibiotic.
“We looked around for something that would be economically beneficial,” Barnhizer said about seeking a place for the lab.
So they consolidated their lab within Nanologix’s current headquarters — a red, wooden building Barnizer said was once a pole barn. But there, the company can develop up to 60,000 BNPs a day, he said.
“We brought some equipment up from Cincinnati,” Barnhizer said while walking around the new laboratory.
The blue floor is coated with a special paint that doesn’t chip, and the new, stainless-steel cabinets glimmer in the fluorescent lighting.
“These cabinets actually came from Sam’s Club,” he said.
Three scientists with backgrounds in chemistry and microbiology are experimenting with other filters, like a quarter-sized plastic disk with 2.5 million pico-level [two steps smaller than micro] openings called BioNanoChannel, or BNC.
Working under a safety hood, Tim Aronson, a research and development scientist, tests the filters’ quality with Level 1 bacteria — or bacteria humans come in contact with every day.
The safety hood is “a high-efficiency particle filter that filters out all dust particles: fungi, yeast and bacterium,” Aronson said, wearing latex gloves and a pristine-white lab coat.
Aronson said while working beneath the hood, it protects the scientist and the testing sample.
To test their products with higher-level bacteria like tuberculosis or anthrax, Nanologix sends their products off to third-party labs, which Barnhizer says are excited about the results. But despite the breakthrough, it could still be months before the biotech company reaps monetary reward.
“Our sales have been minimal because we need FDA approval,” Barnhizer said. “All these studies and its raw data will be submitted to the FDA.”
After that, he believes it will take up to three months before FDA approval because of the testing’s noninvasive nature.
If needed, Barnhizer said they could bring in more of the machines that place BNP in petri dishes to increase production. If Nanologix grows out of the building, “We’ve already talked to the landowner here,” Barnhizer said. “He’s got six acres that’s available to us.”