How Virginia pathogen-testing company Aperiomics is responding to COVID-19

CEO Dr. Crystal Icenhour talks about how the Sterling-based biotech company's work has changed during the pandemic.

Dr. Crystal Icenhour, cofounder and CEO of Aperiomics.

(Courtesy photo)

Update: Aperiomics' new rates have been added. (3/19/20, 9:03 a.m.)

Sterling, Virginia-based biotech company Aperiomics has set some new policies due to the spread of COVID-19.

Founded in 2014, the venture-funded company was born out of George Washington University by CEO Dr. Crystal Icenhour, President Dr. Keith Crandall, CTO Dr. Yuan Chen, Dr. Evan Johnson and Dr. Eduardo Castro-Nallar. The company uses genomic analysis and machine learning to detect known pathogens from a sample of any nature in just one test, and reports that its Xplore-Patho tech can accurately identify nearly 40,000 microorganisms including over 12,000 clinically relevant pathogens.

Despite the virus’ spread, Icenhour, who touts credential such as a Ph.D. in pathobiology and molecular medicine from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and fellowships at Duke Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic, told that the biotech company has not stopped its operations. A large portion of the company’s nonclinical team is now working remotely, while the other employees are operating in a sterile lab environment at the company’s headquarters.

“Working at the forefront of public health and infectious disease diagnostics, our team at Aperiomics understands the risks posed by the spread of coronavirus,” said Icenhour. “Alongside dedicating significant resources to ensure our staff and their families remain safe, we are actively monitoring the latest CDC and local regulatory guidelines, encouraging our team to practice proper hygiene habits and take critical health precautions as necessary.”

In an email, Icenhour shared Aperiomics’ response to the COVID-19 spread, and her thoughts on managing the virus. This interview has been edited for length and clarity:


### Can Aperiomics’ pathogen test detect COVID-19?

Dr. Crystal Icenhour: With the world’s largest database of nearly 40,000 microorganisms, Aperiomics’ technology could have identified coronavirus in respiratory samples before the outbreak. Our metagenomic tools combine deep DNA/RNA sequencing with machine learning to give doctors identification of every pathogen (including COVID-19) within, for example, a sputum [saliva and mucus] sample. Had our technology been utilized as the standard of care, public health professionals could have spotted COVID-19 within the very first infected patients, even though it had not previously been known to exist in humans.

That said, now that the virus is spreading, our testing would not be the first line of defense due to its current cost [about $1,000 for individuals paying without insurance] and turnaround time. As our technology becomes the standard of care in the coming years, it will facilitate the identification of new viruses early and reduce the risks of pandemics in the future.

Has this outbreak changed Aperiomics’ workflow at all? If so, how?

We recognize that in this time of need, essential health testing services are as critical as ever. We are fortunate to be able to continue our operations without any significant disruption, ensuring clinicians and their patients can still receive the most accurate and comprehensive infection testing possible. We are also temporarily reducing pricing on our tests to reflect the financial hardship that many are already beginning to face. More details on reduced pricing will be shared shortly via our social media channels.

[Editor’s note: Aperiomics shared its reduced pricing later Thursday afternoon.]

Do you foresee the scope of Aperiomics’ work changing as COVID-19 continues to spread?

Because our test is so comprehensive, Aperiomics cannot effectively provide patients with needed results in the 24- to 36-hour timeframe necessary to hinder the spread of coronavirus. COVID-19’s unexpected rise signals a broader need for change within the world of diagnostics. Investing in metagenomic, next-generation DNA sequencing will allow our public health officials to more effectively detect novel pathogens before they wreak havoc, preventing outbreaks of dangerous infectious diseases moving forward.

Any advice on how to get a handle on the spread of this virus?

The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have distributed effective guidelines and recommendations for communities to follow. Washing hands, avoiding touching your face and sheltering in place as much as is feasible are the best tools that average people have in shortening this crisis and reducing the spread of infection. My only advice would be to remain calm and continue forward with the necessary health precautions. This pandemic will resolve over time.

Series: Coronavirus
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