Big data analytics company identifies disease-causing microbes with USTAR support

As recent technologies and discoveries continue to make DNA sequencing easier and faster, local Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) companies are hoping their big data analytic technologies can help individuals make more informed patient management decisions.

Big data refers to structured and unstructured data sets that are so large and complex that current processing systems are inadequate to process or effectively analyze the full range of data. In life sciences particularly, IDbyDNA is developing big data analytical technology to rapidly uncover hidden sequence patterns, unknown correlations, and other insights in large-scale sets of DNA databases to revolutionize medical diagnostics.

“Big data analytics hold the promise of transforming massive amounts of digital content, like DNA sequences or electronic medical records, into tools for precisions diagnostics and therapeutics,” said Barbara Araneo, Ph.D., emerging technology development lead who oversees the life sciences sector for USTAR.

Big data has dozens of potential applications that can be used across medical and healthcare fields. With genome bases that are petabytes—a million gigabytes—scientists have access to thousands of complete DNA strands across hundreds of species. As a result, big data enables scientists to discover new viruses, find genetic links to diseases, and identify new treatments or the source of an infection.

USTAR-supported company IDbyDNA applies big data and metagenomics to medical diagnostics testing. By applying big data DNA sequencing techniques to clinical samples, IDbyDNA can find the causative agent of infections or diseases such as pneumonia with a single sample.

IDbyDNA’s technology, which was initially developed by Dr. Mark Yandell at the University of Utah, can identify a specific pathogen in real time, generating results in typically less than a minute. The time saving technology may revolutionize how infectious diseases are treated. In comparison, traditional testing relies primarily on growing cultures of suspected pathogens—a process that is less conclusive and more time consuming than utilizing big data.

“If you look at the current standard of care for diagnostic care and infectious diseases, there have been tests available for years and years,” said Jeff Field, chief commercial officer of IDbyDBA.

“First of all, you have your standard culture, where they take a sample and try and grow a culture. If the culture doesn’t grow, you don’t have a diagnostic,” explained Field. “You have cultures, polymerase chain reaction, and serum testing, and there is lots of limitations of current testing.”

IDbyDNA’s testing also provides more certainty and accuracy with pathogen diagnosis when compared to traditional methods.

“Our first clinically validated test is for respiratory tract infections or pneumonia. And for up to 60 percent of adults who are hospitalized, traditional tests fail to detect what the pathogen is that is causing their pneumonia,” said Field. “Our testing, we’re literally looking at thousands of different pathogens in a single test…we’re looking at the RNA or DNA of the pathogen.”

Currently, IDbyDNA is utilizing a USTAR grant to further develop a new search technology for management of large metagenomics archives that has a simple interface easily used in lab, hospital or clinic settings.

The applications of the technology are wide ranging. For example, infectious diseases kill 5 million children under the age of five worldwide each year. However, the majority of these deaths are preventable as the infections are treatable when the pathogen can be quickly identified.

Suspecting an infectious disease, a doctor is able to test for the presence of bacteria or a virus. The IDbyDNA approach identifies pathogens concretely to facilitate antibiotic therapy.

“Other tests are hypotheses. They select a test based on what they think something might be,” said Field. “Ours is a hypothesis free approach. Rather than saying ‘Do I have this organism or this pathogen, we’re asking the question, ‘What pathogen do I have?’”

Since developing its core technology with support through a USTAR grant to the University of Utah, IDbyDNA has begun to implement their technology at large commercial laboratories like ARUP Laboratories at the University of Utah. The company has also begun to explore international contracts in Brazil, Japan and other countries around the globe.

In addition to expanding technology distribution, IDbyDNA is also taking the necessary steps to begin to secure a new round of Series B funding to further support their commercialization efforts. The company currently has offices in Salt Lake City and will open their own laboratory in early 2019.   

“USTAR gave us a grant that has really helped support the additional growth, acceleration and development of our technology,” said Field.

To learn more about technologies and companies supported through USTAR, visit