Measuring DNA health

November 1, 2014 by Jennifer Huber
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Fall 2014

Sometime soon, Sylvain Costes (Ph.D.’99 NE, right) and Jonathan Tang (Ph.D.’10 BioE) hope that annual medical checkups will include a simple blood test to determine levels of DNA damage.

Sylvain Costes in the labBerkeley Lab scientists and Exogen Biotechnology co-founders Sylvain Costes (right) and Jonathan Tang. (Photo courtesy Exogen Biotechnology)The list of things assaultive to the body’s basic building blocks is long—radiation, ultraviolet light and toxins, to name a few—and errors occur even during normal cell division. The body continually repairs this damaged DNA, but sometimes the routine repair process fails. DNA damage and genetic mutations can lead to serious health problems, like cancer, immunological disorders, neurological disorders and premature aging.

To map DNA damage in tissue or blood samples, the Berkeley Lab scientists developed a new technology that automates measurements with a high-throughput microscope and proprietary image analysis software to spot DNA breaks. The result is a more accurate count, in a fraction of the time compared to conventional methods.

The pair founded Exogen Biotechnology to translate their technology into an affordable product the public can use to monitor personal DNA health. Exogen technology can measure DNA damage levels from blood samples easily collected with an in-home kit.

 “To me, this will become the cholesterol test of cancer,” says Costes. “Your genetics place you in a certain range, but your lifestyle can change where you are within that range. In contrast to genetic testing, we feel like this test can bring hope—because you have a way to act.”