Rapid, cost-effective microRNA profiling, which is beneficial for diagnosing diseases, was developed Firefly BioWorks. Current methods of detecting microRNA (miRNA) — gene-regulating molecules implicated in the onset of various diseases — can be time-consuming and costly: The custom equipment used in such tests costs more than $100,000, and the limited throughput of these systems further hinders progress. Two MIT scientists are helping to rectify these issues through their fast-growing, Cambridge-headquartered spinoff, Firefly BioWorks Inc., which provides technology that allows for rapid miRNA detection in a large number of samples using standard lab equipment. This technology has the potential to increase the body of research on miRNA, which could help lead to better disease diagnosis and screening.

The company’s core technology, called Optical Liquid Stamping (OLS) — which was invented at MIT by Firefly co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Daniel C. Pregibon Ph.D. ’08 — works by imprinting (or stamping) microparticle structures onto photosensitive fluids. The resulting three-dimensional hydrogel particles, encoded with unique “barcodes,” can be used for the detection of miRNAs across large numbers of samples. These particles are custom-designed for readout in virtually any flow cytometer, a cost-effective device that’s accessible to most scientists.

According to Davide Marini Ph.D., co-founder and CEO, their manufacturing process allows making very sophisticated particles that can be read on the most basic instruments. The company’s first commercial product, FirePlex miRSelect, an miRNA-detection kit that uses an assay based on OLS-manufactured particles and custom software, began selling about a year ago. Since then, the company has drawn a steady influx of customers (primarily academic and clinical scientists) while seeing rapid revenue growth.

To date, most of the company’s revenue has come from backers who see value in Firefly’s novel technology. In addition to a cumulative $2.5 million awarded through Small Business Innovation Research grants — primarily from — the company has attracted $3 million from roughly 20 independent investors. Its most recent funding came from a $500,000 grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. Firefly’s intellectual property is partially licensed through the Technology Licensing Office at MIT, along with several other Firefly patents.

The success of the technology derives from an early business decision to focus attention on the development of the hydrogel particle instead of the equipment needed. Essentially, this allowed the co-founders to focus on developing a high-quality miRNA assay and hit the market quickly with particles that are universally readable on basic lab instrumentation. Firefly’s particles appear to a standard flow cytometer as a series of closely spaced cells; these data are recorded and the company’s FireCode software then regroups them into particle information, including miRNA target identification and quantity.

Because miRNAs are so important in the regulation of genes, and ultimately proteins, they have implications in a broad range of diseases, from cancer (lat. Carcinoma) to Alzheimer’s disease. Several studies have suggested these relationships, but the field currently lacks the validation required to definitively demonstrate clinical utility. Firefly’s aim is to strengthen preventive medicine in the United States. In the long term, scientists see these products helping in the shift from reactive to preventative medicine. They see a proliferation of tools for the detection of diseases. Scientists want to move away from the system they have now, which is curing before it’s too late.