A Eugene, Ore., startup has developed a new technology that uses tiny, transparent worms called nematodes to quickly test water samples for a broad range of environmental toxins that impact human health. The breakthrough could dramatically speed testing, cut costs and reduce training time required for technicians doing environmental testing.

Developed by NemaMetrix, Inc., the technology is a new application of the company's existing ScreenChip technology, which was designed for drug screening and uses microfluidics to extract individual nematodes from a reservoir then monitor electrical signals from the worm to quantitatively measure the effects a drug or chemical has on an animal's overall biology.

"We're applying this same technology to environmental toxins," said Matt Beaudet, CEO of NemaMetrix. "What we've developed is a 'canary in the coal mine' that can detect a broad range of environmental toxins by monitoring the heart-like pump in a simple organism, in this case the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, which has a high degree of genetic and neurophysiological similarity to humans."

This nematode measures one millimeter in length and has only a two-week lifespan. Using the nematodes dramatically reduces the time and costs associated with current testing methods, which often involve small fish, or in longer term studies, mice or rats that live for two years and are expensive to maintain.

Because the nematode is such a simple organism, it reacts to a broad range of toxins, and reacts quickly, giving a rapid indication when a toxin is present, Beaudet said.

"This is especially useful when you're not sure of the exact toxin you're looking for," said Beaudet, referring to situations where toxicity might be suspected, but not specific chemicals. "The nematode quickly indicates if there is something bad in the sample that could be harmful to humans, and more in-depth testing can then be performed."

Beaudet compares the technology to electrocardiogram (ECG) tests on humans that can be used to determine a range of conditions beyond just the health of the heart. Most current environmental toxin testing methods, such as mass spectrometry or petri dish tests, take a very binary, qualitative approach, looking to see whether a specific chemical or toxin is present or not, or if it is lethal or not, Beaudet said.

With the NemaMetrix system, operators can detect even a minor depression in neural activity triggered by a toxin.

"You can only do this with a whole animal and a quantitative platform like ours," Beaudet said. "By analyzing the electrical signals from the nematode we can detect abnormalities that indicate a toxin is present long before the effect is so strong it kills the nematode."

Containing the technology in a small, palm-sized device also makes it easy to deploy so that training time for operators might be reduced from weeks or months to a matter of minutes.

A $250,000 investment in the project through Oregon BEST's Early-Stage Investments program is enabling the University of Oregon spinout to work with Janis Weeks, a UO professor of biology, to advance the technology through lab testing and customer validation from field tests.