Halifax’s Alentic Microscience, whose handheld diagnostic device is being used in the International Space Station, is raising capital to adapt its product to help with the fight against COVID-19.

Alentic Microscience has developed a new imaging device that instantly reads patients’ results at the point of care, using only a drop of blood, without the need for bulky microscopes and lab equipment.  The company gained attention two years ago when the Canadian Space Agency chose its device to monitor astronauts’ immune systems in real time aboard the space station.

Since then, the company has conducted extensive research and development to increase the device’s uses, and developed tests that can identify which COVID-19 patients face the greatest danger and need medication.

“COVID has been consequential as it’s affected the way we’ve worked and dealt with suppliers,” said Founder and CEO Alan Fine in an interview. “It’s also presented some urgent and important needs, such as the need for diagnostic tests associated with COVID. And our technology can be very valuable in that regard.”

He said the company is now raising a bridge funding round – worth “one to a few million” before trying to raise a Series A round later in the year. Alentic has never revealed its previous equity funding amounts, though the company did receive a $3 million loan from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency two years ago.

Based on Fine’s work as a research professor at Dalhousie University, Alentic aims to manufacture a simple, hand-held device called Prospector that can quickly produce a range of medical diagnoses from a single drop of blood. The goal is to replace the slow and expensive process of testing patients and sending their bloodwork to labs for analysis.

Prospector uses proprietary lensless microscopy, artificial intelligence and related technologies to conduct a complete blood count, or CBC, from a single drop of blood. A CBC can assess the red and white blood cells and platelets in blood and be used to detect such conditions as infections, anemia and leukemia.

In the past two years, the Alentic team (which now amounts to 18 people) has been working on the transition from prototype to product, and conducted R&D so that clinicians can draw more information from a blood droplet.  As well as a CBC, Prospector can now also carry out multiple simultaneous immunoassays and immunocytometry, among other functions. These tests use labelled antibodies to measure, respectively, the levels of specific molecules and specific subtypes of cells in the blood –information critical for diagnosing and monitoring many diseases.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted Alentic’s work as the team figured out how to proceed with the development of Prospector while ensuring its staff was safe. But it also created a huge opportunity.

Prospector can be adapted to provide rapid and inexpensive tests for COVID-19 patients, mainly by assessing which patients are the most likely to deteriorate rapidly. The virus attacks each individual differently, with some showing no symptoms, others have severe flu-like symptoms and others still face a life-threatening situation.

Those in the third category often show a sharp decline in a particular subtype of white blood cells, as well as a sharp increase in circulating levels of certain proteins. These are all things that Prospector can measure in minutes in a single drop of blood, said Fine. That means healthcare professionals can use Prospector to assess patients in hospital. The results can flag which patients need certain medications, which is important because drugs are most effective if administered early. It also means patients who are not in danger don’t receive drugs they don’t need, thus sparing them the risks of side effects.

Alentic is also looking at other ways its technology can help the fight against COVID, such as detecting anti-virus antibodies in blood and producing faster and less expensive readings from nasal swabs. Fine expects that the virus will linger for a few years even if global vaccination programs are successful, so his device could be used in this regard for years.

The company is planning to seek fast-track regulatory approval for products that can help fight COVID, hoping that Prospector can be used for this purpose by the end of the year in Canada, the U.S. and/or Europe. If the product succeeds in helping to fight COVID, the company hopes it will help with a more rapid approval in other medical procedures.

Meanwhile, Alentic is also going through the regulatory process for the core CBC tests, and has focused mainly on approval with Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. As well as the major markets in developed economies, the company has begun to line up distribution partners in such markets as Africa and Latin America.

“We had thought CBC would be our first product to market and then we’d introduce other functionality,” said Fine. “Because of COVID, we shifted priorities and want to do something for COVID if we can.”