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Animal Healthcare Company Zoetis Completes Acquisition of Basepaws, a Company That Sells At-home DNA Testing Kits for Cats

Genetic testing for the health and wellbeing of beloved pets is not unlike clinical laboratory testing to develop personalized treatments for humans

Clinical laboratory professionals know that the same patients who complain about a $10 copay for their own laboratory testing will happily pay veterinarians tons of cash to test and treat their beloved pets. And as genetic testing for humans becomes commonplace, more people are seemingly willing to pay for genetic analyses of their pets as well.

In June, animal health company Zoetis, Inc. announced it had completed the acquisition of pet care genetics company Basepaws. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

California-based Basepaws is a privately-held company that provides pet owners with analytics, genetic tests, and early health risk assessments for their pets through oral microbiome analysis. Founded in 2017, Basepaws was responsible for the creation of the first at-home genetic testing platform for cats.

Basepaws sells easy-to-use genetic testing kits for cats that allow pet owners and veterinarians to better understand an individual pet’s predisposition to certain illnesses and increase the likelihood of early detection and treatment of those diseases.

It’s not unlike the drive toward personalized medicine and genetic testing that is at the core of human precision medicine.

Different Breeds, Different Needs

Basepaws has a slogan: “Different breeds, different needs.” This means, according to their website, each individual cat has a unique composition of genetic traits that can relate to its needs for optimal health and wellbeing. Obviously, this would apply to all pets.

“As a pioneer in pet care genetics, the California-based Basepaws offers easy-to-use genetic screening tools for the early detection of disease risk in pets, as well as individualized breed and health reports that can identify traits, biomarkers, and potential hereditary conditions for pets. Basepaws helps pet owners and veterinarians understand an individual pet’s risk for disease and can lead to more meaningful engagements and increased likelihood of early detection and treatment of disease,” states a Zoetis press release announcing the acquisition.

“The addition of Basepaws will enhance our portfolio in the precision animal health space and inform our future pipeline of pet care innovations,” said Kristin Peck, CEO of Zoetis, in the press release. “Working together, we can continue to provide veterinarians and pet owners with more comprehensive ways to proactively manage the health, wellness, and quality of care for their animals.”

Anna Skaya
“Basepaws and Zoetis both consist of pet lovers with a passion for science, and our mission is to create better and longer lives for our pets through knowledge and data,” Anna Skaya (above), CEO of Basepaws, told ROI-N.J. “We look forward to expanding our business and the impact of our genetic products with the global scale and [research and development] experience of Zoetis, the world leader in animal health. We believe that, together, we can bring the benefits of a more proactive healthcare approach to pet parents around the world.” Genetic testing for optimum pet health is not unlike the drive for personalized clinical laboratory genetic testing for humans. (Photo copyright: Los Angeles Times.)

Test Results for Hundreds of Genetic Disorders and Health Markers

Basepaws currently sells three DNA test kits for felines on their webpage. The current price for an oral health test kit that identifies active signs of dental diseases is $69. Their breed and cat health DNA test kit, which provides results for over 115 known feline genetic markers, is $129. Their most comprehensive testing kit is a whole genome sequencing (WGS) kit which is currently on sale for $399.

After receiving a test kit by mail, the purchaser registers the kit online, takes a single buccal swab from their kitty’s inner cheek, and then mails the sample to Basepaws. Lab personnel then extract the cat’s DNA from the sample and perform quality checks to ensure the sample is acceptable for genetic testing. It takes four to six weeks for consumers to receive test results.

According to the company’s website, Basepaws’ WGS test provides results related to 43 genetic disorders that are represented by 65 health markers. The listing of genetic disorders contained in the Health Marker section of the Basepaws report includes data on:

  • Metabolic disorders,
  • Musculoskeletal and connective tissue disorders,
  • Renal disorders,
  • Cardiovascular disorders,
  • Blood disorders,
  • Eye disorders,
  • Endocrine disorders,
  • Skin disorders, and
  • Autoimmune disorders.

“The Basepaws team has done an amazing job demonstrating how genetic testing and data can improve how we care for the pets in our lives,” Abhay Nayak, Executive Vice President at Zoetis, told ROI-NJ. “With the addition of Basepaws, Zoetis will continue to strengthen our portfolio of products for precision animal health, across genetics, diagnostics, and data analytics for pets and livestock. We are also excited by how Basepaws’ feline genomic and microbiome database will help enhance our [research and development] capabilities and inform the future of our pet care pipeline.”

Zoetis, based in Parsippany, N.J., manufactures vaccines, medicines, clinical laboratory diagnostics, and other technologies for the benefit of companion pets and livestock. The Fortune 500 company generated $7.8 billion in revenue in 2021, according to its website.

American’s Spend Billions Caring for Their Pets

An article in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, titled, “Exploratory Content Analysis of Direct-to-Consumer Pet Genomics: What Is Being Marketed and What Are Consumers Saying?” noted that US pet owners spent approximately $103.6 billion on their pets in 2020, with 30% of that amount going towards veterinary care and products.

The article also stated that the global animal genetic testing market was valued at $990 million in 2020 and is only expected to rise.

Thus, spending money keeping our pets healthy is not only a typical element of Americans’ lives, but also a mega-billion-dollar industry. With at-home genetic testing for humans increasing in popularity, it’s likely testing for animals will follow that trend as well.

In the future, some clinical laboratory organizations may want to consider assessing the animal DNA testing market for its potential to be a useful source of new revenue, especially because potential customers will pay cash when they order genetic tests for their dogs and cats.  

JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Zoetis Acquiring Basepaws, Leader in Pet Care Genetics

Zoetis Completes Acquisition of Basepaws, an Innovative Leader in Petcare Genetics, to Strengthen its Portfolio of Precision Animal Health Solutions

Exploratory Content Analysis of Direct-to-consumer Pet Genomics: What is Being Marketed and What Are Consumers Saying?

New Study Shows Dogs Can be Trained to Sniff Out Presence of Prostate Cancer in Urine Samples

Determining how dogs do this may lead to biomarkers for new clinical laboratory diagnostics tests

Development of new diagnostic olfactory tools for prostate and other cancers is expected to result from research now being conducted by a consortium of researchers at different universities and institutes. To identify new biomarkers, these scientists are studying how dogs can detect the presence of prostate cancer by sniffing urine specimens.

Funded by a grant from the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the pilot study demonstrated that dogs could identify prostate samples containing cancer and discern between cancer positive and cancer negative samples.

This is not the only research study to focus on the ability of dogs to detect cancer and other health conditions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, dogs were used to spot people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Dark Daily covered this in “German Scientists Train Dogs to Detect the Presence of COVID-19 in Saliva Samples; Can a Canine’s Nose Be as Accurate as Clinical Laboratory Testing?

The “end goal” of this latest pilot study is “to pave the way towards development of machine-based olfactory diagnostic tools that define and recapitulate what can be detected and accomplished now via canine olfaction,” according to a research paper published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, titled, “Feasibility of Integrating Canine Olfaction with Chemical and Microbial Profiling of Urine to Detect Lethal Prostate Cancer.”

Research institutions, hospitals, and laboratories that participated in the pilot study included:

Canine Olfactory Combined with Artificial Intelligence Analysis Approach

The part of a canine brain that controls smell is 40 million times greater than that of humans. Some dog breeds have 300 to 350 million sensory receptors, compared to about five million in humans. With their keen sense of smell, dogs are proving to be vital resources in the detection of some diseases.

The pilot study examined how dogs could be trained to detect prostate cancer in human urine samples.

Claire Guest, CEO and Chief Scientific Officer of Medical Detection Dogs

Claire Guest, CEO and Chief Scientific Officer of UK-based Medical Detection Dogs and one of the study authors, is shown above with one of her cancer detecting dogs. In a Prostate Cancer Foundation article, she said, “Prostate cancer is not going to turn out to be a single note. What dogs are really good at discovering is a tune. Think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, those first few notes. We suspect the cancer signature is something like that. It’s a pattern; the dogs are really good at recognizing the pattern. Machines that recognize the notes but can’t read the pattern are not reliable biomarkers,” she noted. The researchers believe the best solution for developing a clinical laboratory diagnostic that detects prostate cancer may be a combined approach using canine olfaction and AI neural networks. (Photo copyright: Janine Warwick/NPR.)

To perform the study, the researchers trained two dogs to sniff urine samples from men with high-grade prostate cancer and from men without the cancer. The two dogs used in the study were a four-year-old female Labrador Retriever named Florin, and a seven-year-old female wirehaired Hungarian Vizsla named Midas. The dogs were trained to respond to cancer-related chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, the researchers added to the urine samples, and to not respond to the samples without the VOCs.

Both dogs performed well in their cancer detection roles, and both successfully identified five of seven urine samples from men with prostate cancer, correlating to a 71.4% accuracy rate. In addition, Florin correctly identified 16 of 21 non-aggressive or no cancer samples for an accuracy rate of 76.2% and Midas did the same with a 66.7% accuracy rate.

The researchers also applied gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy (GC-MS) analysis of volatile compounds and microbial species found in urine.

“We wondered if having the dogs detect the chemicals, combined with analysis by GC-MS, bacterial profiling, and an artificial intelligence (AI) neural network trained to emulate the canine cancer detection ability, could significantly improve the diagnosis of high-grade prostate cancer,” said Alan Partin, MD, PhD, Professor of Urology, Pathology and Oncology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and one of the authors of the study, told Futurity.

The researchers determined that canine olfaction was able to distinguish between positive and negative prostate cancer in the samples, and the VOC and microbiota profiling analyses showed a qualitative difference between the two groups. The multisystem approach demonstrated a more sensitive and specific way of detecting the presence of prostate cancer than any of the methods used by themselves.

In their paper, the researchers concluded that “this study demonstrated feasibility and identified the challenges of a multiparametric approach as a first step towards creating a more effective, non-invasive early urine diagnostic method for the highly aggressive histology of prostate cancer.”

Can Man’s Best Friend be Trained to Detect Cancer and Save Lives?

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among men in the developed world. And, according to data from the National Cancer Institute, standard clinical laboratory blood tests, such as the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test for early detection, sometimes miss the presence of cancer.

Establishing an accurate, non-invasive method of sensing the disease could help detect the disease sooner when it is more treatable and save lives.

The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be about 248,530 new cases of prostate cancer diagnosed in 2021 and that there will be approximately 34,130 deaths resulting from the disease during the same year.

Of course, more testing will be needed before Man’s best friend can be put to work detecting cancer in medical environments. But if canines can be trained to detect the disease early, and in a non-invasive way, more timely diagnosis and treatment could result in higher survival rates.

Meanwhile, as researchers identify the elements dogs use to detect cancer and other diseases, this knowledge can result in the creation of new biomarkers than can be used in clinical laboratory tests.

JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Feasibility of Integrating Canine Olfaction with Chemical and Microbial Profiling of Urine to Detect Lethal Prostate Cancer

German Scientists Train Dogs to Detect the Presence of COVID-19 in Saliva Samples; Can a Canine’s Nose Be as Accurate as Clinical Laboratory Testing?

Olfactory Sensations! Meet the Dogs Leading the Revolution in Prostate Cancer Detection (Part 1)

Olfactory Sensations Smell Like Cancer (Part 2)

Prostate Cancer-Detecting Dogs’ Olfactory Capacity Trains Neural Network for Combination Diagnostic Approach

Dogs Sniff Pee for Signs of Prostate Cancer

Thailand Researchers Train Labrador Retrievers to Detect COVID-19 in Human Sweat

University of East Anglia Researchers Develop Non-Invasive Prostate Cancer Urine Test

Boston University School of Medicine Study Finds Vitamin D May Help Patients Fight COVID-19 Infections, But Some Question These Conclusions

Clinical laboratory managers may want to follow the debate that surfaced shortly after publication of the study in a peer-reviewed journal, when editors of the journal issued concerns over the researchers’ claims

Virologists and medical laboratory scientists continue to investigate ways the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus can be defeated using the body’s own defenses in conjunction with medical treatments and a possible vaccine. Now, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine have discovered that higher levels of vitamin D in the blood may improve chances of recovering from a COVID-19 infection.

In their paper, titled, “Vitamin D Sufficiency, a Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D At Least 30 Ng/Ml Reduced Risk for Adverse Clinical Outcomes in Patients with COVID-19 Infection,” the Boston University researchers suggest that sufficient levels of Vitamin D may help reduce complications, illness intensity, and death among COVID-19 patients.

“This study provides direct evidence that Vitamin D sufficiency can reduce the complications, including the cytokine storm (release of too many proteins into the blood too quickly) and ultimately death from COVID-19,” Michael F. Holick, PhD, MD, Professor of Medicine, Physiology and Biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine and one of the authors of the study, told SciTechDaily.

Holick is well-known in the scientific community for his many published studies on Vitamin D. In 2018, Kaiser Health News and The New York Times published a retrospective on Holick and his advocacy on behalf of Vitamin D, titled, “The Man Who Sold America On Vitamin D—and Profited in the Process.” In that story, Holick acknowledged working as a consultant for several organizations, including Quest Diagnostics in a relationship that dates back to 1979. KHN and NYT noted that Quest Diagnostics performs Vitamin D tests.

The Boston University researchers published their study in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open-access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS). The paper’s apparent conclusions, however, invoked an “expression of concern” from the journal’s editors, which, along with direct responses from the Boston University researchers, can be read on PLOS ONE.

Can Vitamin D Save Lives?

To perform their research, the Boston University researchers examined the Vitamin D levels of 235 patients who had been admitted to a hospital with a SARS-CoV-2 infection. The patients were then tracked for clinical outcomes, including:

  • severity of the infection,
  • becoming unconscious,
  • difficulty breathing,
  • hypoxia, and
  • death.

Blood samples were also analyzed for the number of lymphocytes and inflammatory markers. The researchers compared the collected data between patients who were sufficient to those who were deficient in Vitamin D levels.

They determined that patients over the age of 40 who were Vitamin D sufficient were 51.5% less likely to die from a COVID-19 infection than those who were deficient in the vitamin.

Michael F. Holick, PhD, MD
“Because Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency is so widespread in children and adults in the United States and worldwide, especially in the winter months, it is prudent for everyone to take a vitamin D supplement to reduce risk of being infected and having complications from COVID-19,” Michael F. Holick, PhD, MD (above), told SciTechDaily. The Boston University School of Medicine professor and study author has been praising the health benefits of Vitamin D for years. He played a role in drafting national guidelines for the vitamin and also authored books that tout the advantages of Vitamin D, the importance of UV rays, and the biologic effects of light. (Photo copyright: Boston Herald.)

How Vitamin D Works and Why It’s So Important

In a fact sheet, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend that adults between the ages of 19 and 70 take 15 micrograms (mcg) or 600 International Units (IU) of Vitamin D per day. Adults over the age of 70 should increase that amount to 20 mcg or 800 IUs per day.

According NBC News, Americans spent $936 million on supplements in 2017, which was nine times more than the previous decade. That article also stated that medical laboratory testing for Vitamin D levels have exponentially increased over the years. More than 10 million tests for Vitamin D levels were ordered for Medicare patients in 2016 at a cost of $365 million, which represents an increase of 547% since 2007. Currently, approximately one in four adults over the age of 60 in the US take Vitamin D supplements.

The NIH fact sheet notes that Vitamin D is a nutrient found in cells throughout the body and is needed for good health and to maintain strong bones. Individuals who are deficient in Vitamin D may develop soft, thin, brittle bones, as well as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Vitamin D also helps the immune system fight off invading bacteria and viruses, helps nerves carry messages between the brain and other body parts, and helps muscles move. It can also play a role in warding off osteoporosis in older adults.

Very few foods naturally contain Vitamin D. The best dietary sources for the vitamin are fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel, and foods fortified with Vitamin D, such as milks, some breakfast cereals, and yogurt. Being outside on sunny days is another way to obtain Vitamin D, as the body makes the vitamin when skin is directly exposed to the sun.

The Boston University study outlines the advantages of having sufficient Vitamin D levels, as well as how the vitamin may help ward off and possibly lessen the effects of infections like COVID-19, though those conclusions have been called into question.

Nevertheless, individuals who are deficient in the vitamin may want to take a supplement or get plenty of sunshine, just to be on the safe side. And clinical laboratory managers will want to keep in mind that over the years “the steady increase in physician and patient demand for Vitamin D tests has kept most clinical and pathology laboratories scrambling to maintain turnaround times and quality,” which Dark Daily reported in “Why Vitamin D Continues to Be the World’s Fastest-Growing Clinical Laboratory Test.”

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Vitamin D Sufficiency, a Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D at Least 30 ng/mL Reduced Risk for Adverse Clinical Outcomes in Patients with COVID-19 Infection

Sufficient Levels of Vitamin D Significantly Reduces Complications, Death Among COVID-19 Patients

The Man Who Sold America On Vitamin D—and Profited in the Process

Low Levels of 25-Hydoxyitamin D Linked to COVID-19 Risk

Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals

Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Consumers

Selling America on Vitamin D—and Reaping the Profits

Millions of Americans Take Vitamin D. Most Should Just Stop

Why Vitamin D Continues to Be the World’s Fastest-Growing Clinical Laboratory Test

Kaiser Health News Labels Routine Clinical Laboratory Testing and Other Screening of Elderly Patients an ‘Epidemic’ in US

Some experts in medical community question value of health screenings of older patients with shortened life expectancies, though many aging adults are skeptical of calls to skip tests

What does it mean when a credible health organization makes the assertion that there is an “epidemic” of clinical laboratory testing being ordered on the nation’s elderly? Clinical laboratory leaders and anatomic pathologists know that lab tests are a critical part of screening patients.

Health screenings, particularly those for chronic diseases, such as cancer, can save lives by detecting diseases in their early stages. However, as consumers become more engaged with the quality of their care, one trend is for healthcare policymakers to point out that many medical procedures and care protocols may not bring benefit—and may, instead, bring harm.

No less an authority than Kaiser Health News (KHN) also is questioning what it calls an “epidemic” of testing in geriatric patients. Since medical laboratory tests are part of many screening programs, a rethinking of what tests are necessary in older patients would likely impact clinical laboratories and pathology groups going forward.

Treatment Overkill or Necessary Clinical Laboratory Tests?

“In patients well into their 80s, with other chronic conditions, it’s highly unlikely that they will receive any benefit from screening, and [it is] more likely that the harms will outweigh the benefits,” Cary Gross, MD, Professor of Medicine and Director of the National Clinician Scholars Program at the Yale School of Medicine, told KHN as part of an investigative series called “Treatment Overkill.”

That opinion is supported by a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine. The researchers concluded, “A substantial proportion of the US population with limited life expectancy received prostate, breast, cervical, and colorectal cancer screening that is unlikely to provide net benefit. These results raise concerns about over screening in these individuals, which not only increases healthcare expenditure but can lead to patient harm.”

Yet, seniors and their family members often request health screenings for themselves or their elderly parents, even those with dementia, if they perceive doing so will improve their quality of life, KHN noted.

Cary Gross, MD

Cary Gross, MD, Professor of Medicine and Director of the National Clinician Scholars Program at Yale University, told Kaiser Health News patients “well into their 80s, with other health conditions” are unlikely candidates for the many routine health screening tests administered to elderly patients. Were this to become a trend, medical laboratories could see a drop in physician-ordered screening tests. (Photo copyright: Yale University.)

Meanwhile, an earlier study in JAMA Internal Medicine found older adults perceived screening tests as “morally obligatory” and were skeptical of stopping routine screenings.

In its series, KHN noted two studies that outlined the frequency of screening tests in seniors with limited life expectancies due to dementia or other diseases:

  1. According to the American Journal of Public Health, nearly one in five women with severe cognitive impairment are still getting regular mammograms;
  2. Likewise, 55% of older men with a high risk of death over the next decade still receive PSA tests for prostate cancer, the 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine study found.

“Screening tests are often done in elderly patients as a knee-jerk reaction,” Damon Raskin, MD, a board-certified internist in Pacific Palisades, Calif., who also serves as Medical Director for two skilled nursing facilities, told

Correct Age or Correct Test?

While a movement may be afoot to reduce screening tests in older patients, a one-size-fits-all answer to who should continue to be tested may not be possible.

“You can have an 80-year-old who’s really like a 60-year-old in terms of [his or her] health,” Raskin noted. “In these instances, screening tests such as mammograms and colonoscopies, can be extremely valuable. However, I’ve seen 55-year-olds who have end-stage Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. For those individuals, I probably wouldn’t recommend screenings, for quality of life reasons.”

However, for the general population, researchers have emphasized that the focus should not be on whether physicians are ordering “unnecessary” lab tests, but whether they are ordering the “correct” tests.

A 2013 study published in the online journal PLOS ONE analyzed 1.6 million results from 46 of medicine’s 50 most commonly ordered lab tests. Researchers found, on average, the number of unnecessary tests ordered (30%) was offset by an equal number of necessary tests that went unordered.

“It’s not ordering more tests or fewer tests that we should be aiming for. It’s ordering the right tests, however few or many that is,” senior author Ramy Arnaout, MD, Harvard Medical School, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Associate Director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratories at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, stated in a news release. “Remember, lab tests are inexpensive. Ordering one more test or one less test isn’t going to ‘bend the curve,’ even if we do it across the board. It’s everything that happens next—the downstream visits, the surgeries, the hospital stays—that matters to patients and to the economy and should matter to us.”

Since the elderly are the fastest growing population in America, and since diagnosing and treating chronic diseases is a multi-billion-dollar industry, it seems unlikely that such a trend to move away from medical laboratory health screenings for the very old will gain much traction. Still, with increasing focus on healthcare costs, the federal government may pressure doctors to do just that.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Cancer Screening Rates in Individuals with Different Life Expectancies

Doing More Harm Than Good? Epidemic of Screening Burdens Nation’s Older Patients

Large-Scale Analysis Describes Inappropriate Lab Testing Throughout Medicine

Preventive Screening for Seniors: Is that Test Really Necessary?

Impact of Cognitive Impairment on Screening Mammography Use in Older US Women

Cancer Screening Rates in Individuals with Different Life Expectancies

The Landscape of Inappropriate Laboratory Testing

Older Adults and Forgoing Cancer Screening: ‘Think it would be Strange’

Drones Used to Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens in Switzerland

Demonstration project to move lab specimens by drone was successfully conducted in this alpine nation by Swiss Post and an eight-hospital health system

Delivering clinical laboratory specimens from point A to point B while maintaining the quality and integrity of critical samples is an ongoing issue for medical laboratories and pathology groups worldwide. This is especially true in countries prone to long winters and large amounts of snow. Ground transportation in those areas often experience delays, which can prevent hospitals from receiving needed test results and progressing with treatments that could save lives.

Switzerland is now taking the lead in using drones to transport medical laboratory specimens. In what is believed to be a global first, Ticino EOC, an eight-hospital medical group in Lugano, Switzerland, partnered with Swiss Post (Switzerland’s postal service) and transportation technology manufacturer Matternet of Menlo Park, Calif., to successfully transported laboratory samples between two of Ticino EOC’s hospitals by air using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones. The samples arrived in good conditions after sailing high above blocked roadways. This demonstration project showed that drones can be used to safely deliver much needed lab specimens in both urban and remote rural medical settings.

Drones Present Opportunities for Medical Providers

The Ticino EOC group consists of eight hospital locations:

  1. Lugano Regional Hospital;
  2. Three locations of the Regional Hospital of Bellinzona and Valli (Bellinzona, Faido and Acquarossa);
  3. Mendrisio Regional Hospital;
  4. Locarno Regional Hospital;
  5. Novation Rehabilitation Clinic; and
  6. Oncological Institute of Italian Switzerland.

Matternet’s M2 drone is a quadcopter that travels up to 12 miles on a single battery charge. At just over 2.5 feet in diameter, the M2 can transport parcels up to 4.4 pounds. It cruises at about 22 miles/hour at an altitude of approximately164 to 328 feet above the ground.

According to Matternet’s website, the M2 is “engineered with encrypted communications, a parachute, precision landing, and a host of other safety features” and is “designed to be safe around people and infrastructure.”

Matternet received certification from the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation (FOCA) to fly the drones at any time of the day. FOCA, along with Swiss Post, handle any regulatory issues involved in transporting human blood tissue and other medical laboratory specimens by drone and over public spaces.

“This is a big milestone for us. It means we can operate our technology throughout Switzerland. This will open a big opportunity in medical and e-commerce,” stated Andreas Raptopoulos, Matternet’s cofounder and CEO, in a TechCrunch article.


Matternet’s M2 drone

Matternet’s M2 drone (above) has been used to deliver biological samples between two hospitals in the town of Lugano, Switzerland. (Photo copyrights: Matternet/Swiss Post.)

An additional safety certification is still needed before Swiss Post adds medical drone deliveries to their official services. The packaging that will contain blood samples or any other biohazard materials still requires approval. Swiss Post hopes to be using the drone service regularly for the transportation of lab samples by 2018.

Each drone can be launched using a smartphone application. The launching and landing sites transmit an infrared signal that the drone homes in on. It then delivers the specimens to their predetermined destinations. In the event of an in-flight failure, the drone discharges a parachute and lands.

Delivery by UAV Not New to Healthcare

This is not the first venture to use drones in the field of healthcare. Zipline, a logistics company based in Silicon Valley, is working with the Rwandan government to deliver blood supplies to rural clinics by drone. The company’s website states that, as of May 2017, they have completed over 350 deliveries of blood products to hospitals in Rwanda.

An article appearing in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, highlighted how important drones can be in serving people in rural and economically impoverished areas. Drones can provide healthcare workers with fast access to lab specimens for diagnosis and treatment in areas where roads are impassable or do not exist.

Researchers for that study proved that the movement of the drones does not have any effect on blood samples, which is a crucial element in transporting medical laboratory specimens.

In a Johns Hopkins Medicine news release, one of the authors of the paper, Timothy Kien Amukele, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pathology at Johns Hopkins University, noted the research team had initial concerns about the effects the acceleration and jostling of the drones would have on the laboratory specimens.

“Such movements could have destroyed blood cells or prompted blood to coagulate and I thought all kinds of blood tests might be affected. But our study shows they weren’t, so that was cool,” Amukele stated.

Pathologist Timothy Amukele, MD, PhD

Pathologist Timothy Amukele, MD, PhD (above left), teamed with engineers at Johns Hopkins to develop a drone courier system capable of transporting blood to clinical laboratories. (Photo copyright: Johns Hopkins Medicine.)

For the study, Amukele and his team collected blood samples from 56 healthy volunteers and drove the samples to a drone launching field. Half of the samples were then driven to a clinical laboratory for processing and the other half were placed on the drones for flights lasting from six to 38 minutes.

Comparison of Clinical Lab Specimens Transported by Ground and by Drone

Both the flown and the non-flown samples underwent 33 common medical laboratory tests. The test results showed almost no difference between the two groups of samples. A test for carbon dioxide was the only one that generated different results, but the team did not know if that was due to the movement of the drones or the fact that the samples sat for up to eight hours before being tested.

Amukele is taking part in a collaboration between Johns Hopkins and Makerere University in Uganda. He noted that they would like to perform a study in a more remote location, possibly in Africa, where clinical laboratories can sometimes be more than 60-miles from clinics.

“A drone could go 100 km [approximately 62 miles] in 40 minutes,” noted Amukele in the Johns Hopkins news release. “They’re less expensive than motorcycles, are not subject to traffic delays, and the technology already exists for the drone to be programmed to ‘home’ to certain GPS coordinates, like a carrier pigeon.”

Opportunities for Clinical Laboratories

Use of drones is subject to each country’s laws and regulations. In the US, drone use is regulated by guidelines established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In some cases, the drone must be registered with the FAA and the operator must have a remote pilot certificate to legally fly a drone.

These projects highlight the critical need for cost-effective, safe, dependable transportation of biological materials in a timely manner. For pathologists and clinical laboratories, drones could prove to be another opportunity to provide high-quality, value- added services to healthcare consumers and other medical professionals.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Swiss Post Using Drones to Transport Medical Samples between Hospitals

Medical Drones Poised to Take Off

Doctors Test Drones to Speed Up Delivery of Lab Tests

Drones Can Be Used to Fly Blood Samples to Remote Medical Clinics

Drones Deliver Healthcare

Medical Drones Will Thrive in Healthcare: A Safe Road to Health

Meet Matternet, the Drone Delivery Startup That’s Actually Delivering

Matternet Cleared to Fly Blood Samples in Delivery Drones over Swiss Cities

Swiss Post Drone to Fly Laboratory Samples for Ticino Hospitals

Proof-of-Concept Study Shows Successful Transport of Blood Samples with Small Drones

Blood from the Sky: Zipline’s Ambitious Medical Drone Delivery in Africa