In-Depth: San Diego biotech unveils world's first molecular microchip

Posted at 6:22 PM, Nov 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-17 21:33:33-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- A San Diego biotech company unveiled what it says is the world’s first molecular microchip: a semiconductor chip smaller than a fingernail that can grab an individual molecule and read it.

The technology could dramatically change how we detect diseases, develop drugs, and monitor our health, said Roswell Biotechnologies founder and CEO Paul Mola.

“What we are trying to do at Roswell is digitize biology,” he said. “To provide almost real-time access to biological information to inform decisions about our well-being.”

There are microchips in almost every electronic device we interact with: cell phones, computers, smart devices, vehicles, and appliances.

The Sorrento Valley-based company unveiled a semiconductor chip with 16,000 sensors. Each one can latch onto a single molecule, like a protein from a virus or an enzyme that decodes DNA. Once attached, the chip can read the molecule via tiny changes in electrical current.

Put a little saliva directly on the chip, and you could run diagnostic tests for COVID, the flu, and thousands of other pathogens -- all at the same time, and eventually all from a device at home, Mola said.

“We want to move testing away from the clinic, closer to the community and eventually into the home,” he said. “You don’t have to wait to get sick to be tested. But you can test every day, for everything, everywhere. And that’s how we’re going to stop future pandemics.”

That’s a further off goal, and Mola knows it sounds too good to be true. A company called Theranos once touted all-in-one testing technology. Its CEO is now on trial.

But Roswell has the backing of scientists at Harvard, UCLA, and UC San Diego. It has submitted research for peer review in a scientific journal. Even the company name acknowledges the ideas are a bit out-of-this-world.

“When we started the company and we started to explain to people about the technology, everybody was like, ‘What?? That sounds weird and alien.’ We just told them, ‘Hey, the technology came from the aliens and we call the company Roswell,” Mola said.

Mola said molecular microchips could be used for all kinds of medical applications, but the first commercial market the company is targeting surrounds drug discovery. Next year, Roswell plans to start selling chips to drugmakers, offering them new insights into their investigational medicines at the molecular level.

“This is going to accelerate, but also enhance, the quality of our drug discovery,” Mola said.

From there, the company plans to use its chips to improve DNA sequencing.

“What we’re trying to do is have a technology that can enable everyone to have their own genome as a medical record,” he said.

Molecular microchips could dramatically lower the cost of whole-genome sequencing and speed up the process, Mola said, helping usher in the next era of precision treatments customized to each person’s DNA.

The company has about 50 employees, but Mola said they plan to double the workforce soon.