The Team Behind the RainDrop™ Digital PCR System
In this series of blog posts, we are profiling some of the RainDance Technologies team members — they are, after all, the heart of our company.
In this installment, we chat with Mike Samuels, a principal research scientist and scientific liaison who has been with RainDance for almost seven years, since the very early days of the company. Mike has provided biology expertise for our targeted sequencing platforms and now plays an integral role in the development of our RainDrop digital PCR system.
A: As a principal research scientist, I’ve been working at every level of the platform technology that we have developed. I am involved in a lot of the basic research as well as some of the infrastructure building and application launching. As scientific liaison, I interact with key leaders in the field to understand what the right applications are for the RainDrop digital PCR system. I have also been running the First Access Program, through which we work with customers who are looking for data before they get an instrument.
Q: What was the company like when you first joined?
A: I was brought in as the first biologist and got to see the true potential of picodroplet technology across the full spectrum of biology. The technology is perfect for not only nucleic acid-based assays, but also cell-based assays and protein-based assays. When I joined RainDance, the chemistry and microfluidics had been maturing; we brought it from a true startup to a point where the company was ready to really build and provide answers for customers.
Q: How did you first realize that picodroplets would be the right fit for digital PCR?
A: The targeted sequencing part of our business is what brought us into digital PCR. In the early days of RainDance, we had to decide which market was going to be first for our picodroplet technology, and with the explosion of next-generation sequencing we saw the perfect opportunity to do targeted sequencing. As that business became mature, we were looking at the next platform to launch. What became very obvious is that our customers saw the value for doing PCR in uniform-sized droplets with a method that offered low amplification bias. Our technology is the best tool for counting single molecules, so we saw a natural fit in digital PCR. We already had the microfluidics technology in hand, and we knew that the chemistry we had been using worked well for doing PCR in droplets.
Q: What are the applications you see RainDrop digital PCR system customers using most since the platform launched?
A: The initial focus, even in our internal work, has been detecting very rare molecules in a large background of wild types. That has really been a big focus for cancer and looking for rare mutations in solid tumors and in peripheral fluids; our technology allows you to do non-invasive testing. Another application area is using digital PCR as a multiplex DNA quality assay before a sequencing run. You can get a full understanding of what you’re loading onto the sequencer and decide to load that sample — or not to load it because it’s never going to provide enough information. After sequencing, digital PCR provides an independent, orthogonal measure to go back and validate SNPs of minor allele frequency. The lower limit of what a sequencer can see is about 1%; with digital PCR, we can see three orders of magnitude below that. The ability to really look for the needle in the haystack in a quantitative way is very compelling.
Q: What applications do you expect people to add in the future?
A: What’s so exciting about this digital PCR part of the droplet technology is that it’s just counting. We really expect that our customers are going to come up with new things that they want to count that will surprise us. Applications we do anticipate include biomarker screening —digital PCR offers the opportunity to analyze from blood or urine what’s going on in the entire body in a multiplexed way — looking at microRNAs or methylated DNAs or genes whose expression will be diagnostic. I think that looking at minimal residual disease will be a main application for us as well, because you need to see things at very low sensitivity to monitor for disease recurrence. That’s a perfect sweet spot for us.
Q: Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues don’t know.
A: For a time in my twenties, I was what I call an itinerant grad student. I drove around the country to beautiful places — Colorado, the Bay Area, San Diego — where I would just go to graduate classes and read the literature in the library without being enrolled. Every day I would have five seminars to go to across the whole range of biology, and it was all free. I really got to see the full breadth of cutting-edge biology. It was a great way to see the country and learn about biology.
The RainDrop Digital PCR System is for Research Use Only; not for use in diagnostic procedures.