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Students Develop At-home DNA Test with Privacy in Mind

GenomeLock provides insightful genetic analysis while preserving privacy

The custom-made PCR machine (left), the centrifuge (right), and the genetic sequencer (center) form GenomeLock.The custom-made PCR machine (left), the centrifuge (right), and the genetic sequencer (center) form GenomeLock.
The GenomeLock team (from left): Jakub Wolsza, Ana Cornell, and Mark Ogarek. The GenomeLock team (from left): Jakub Wolsza, Ana Cornell, and Mark Ogarek.

Northwestern Engineering undergraduate Ana Cornell keeps a notebook filled with sketches of ideas and designs she one day hopes to build. One of her first was for an at-home DNA testing kit that she’s now working to make a reality, thanks to support at the University.

Called GenomeLock, the system uses a simple cheek swab and a three-part test kit to provide users with insightful genetic data using DNA that never leaves their home.

Cornell, a rising junior biomedical engineering major, was interested in genetics, but never took a DNA test.

“I’ve always wanted to try a DNA testing kit to learn from it, but I was always concerned about privacy risks with current products on the market,” Cornell said. “I couldn’t find a test that could be taken and analyzed from home.”

After starting the McCormick School of Engineering’s entrepreneurship minor program, Cornell enrolled in ENTREP: 225 Principles of Entrepreneurship in fall 2019, a course taught by Michael Marasco, clinical professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, which teaches students the basics of starting a company. She proposed exploring her idea for an at-home DNA testing kit and received positive feedback.

“Many classmates were interested in the concept, and even volunteered to help on the project,” Cornell said. “That reinforced the idea that this could be more than a class project — it could be something people actually want.”

Propelling to the prototype phase

After the quarter wrapped, Cornell felt confident in her idea could be the basis for a business but didn’t know her next move. She learned about the Propel Program at The Garage at Northwestern, which provides female student entrepreneurs financial support, mentorship, and resources to advance their startup ideas. She was accepted prior to the start of winter quarter.

“I had an idea and the business behind it, but I hadn’t built the device yet,” Cornell said. “The Propel Program offered me the guidance and resources I needed to build my design.”

Jakub Wolsza, a rising sophomore studying electrical engineering, and Mark Ogarek, a rising sophomore studying biomedical engineering, joined her team. Wolsza used his expertise in circuits to build the kit’s polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine — a thermal cycler that uses enzymes to amplify the segment of DNA being analyzed — at a fraction of the cost of current models. Ogarek leveraged his lab experience to refine the DNA extraction process.

To run a GenomeLock test, users take a cheek swab of their DNA, run it through a DNA extractor, then insert it into the PCR machine. The sample is then inserted into a hand-held genetic sequencer, which analyzes the data and produces results.

“To learn your risk for Alzheimer’s, for example, you would analyze the apolipoprotein E gene by running the PCR with the enzymes that naturally detect that gene, and then apply it to the sequencer,” Cornell said. “After the DNA sequencer finishes, you plug it into the computer, open up the analytics, and it will note how many mutations were detected. The system will provide a binary response — positive or negative — about your risk, similar to a pregnancy test.”

A strong support system

GenomeLock was developed almost entirely through resources and experiences on campus. Cornell points to her experience taking Design Thinking and Communication (DTC) as a first-year student for the motivation to pursue her idea.

“DTC gave me the confidence and skills to try this in the first place,” Cornell said. “Our PCR machine was built entirely in the Ford Mechatronics Lab.”

She credits her mentors along the way. Judy Lubin, executive coach-in-residence at The Garage, and Hayes Ferguson, former associate director of The Garage and now director of the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, offered valuable counsel on launching a business. Reza Vafabkhsh, assistant professor of molecular biosciences in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, provided lab space to help the team iterate their test kit prototype and validate the science behind their product.

Looking ahead

In addition to applying for a patent and launching a company website, Cornell also hopes to network with potential investors and manufacturing partners to learn how to eventually produce GenomeLock at scale and bring it to the marketplace.

First, however, the team needs to reconvene. After splitting up GenomeLock’s hardware and working on it remotely during spring quarter, the team will meet in Cornell’s family garage in Glenview, Illinois, this summer to conduct comprehensive tests and finalize their prototype.

“Working remotely is really difficult when building a physical product,” Cornell said. “With everyone together, we’ll be able to test the device and verify each component works with the others. I’m excited for what’s next.”