CHAMPAIGN – Yi Lu believes he's come up with a simple, more effective way to detect the presence of lead.
Within a couple of years, the University of Illinois chemistry professor hopes his Champaign-based company, DzymeTech Inc., will have test kits on the market that homeowners and home inspectors can use to check for lead in paint and water.
"It's rapid and it's easy to use," said Jim Koziarz, the company's chief executive officer. "Just mix it and read. It doesn't have a lot of steps. The simplicity of it gives it a lot of potential in the marketplace."
In recent years, most lead-detection kits on the market have used either sodium sulfide or sodium rhodizonate to indicate the presence of lead.
Sodium sulfide produces a gray-black precipitate when it comes into contact with lead. But because sodium sulfide also reacts with silver and cadmium, the test can produce false positives, Lu said.
DzymeTech employs an entirely different technology, using DNA enzymes to signal the presence of lead and other toxic metals.
The single-strand DNA enzymes bind with metals "like a lock and key," and the presence of the metals is revealed through both colormetric and fluorescence testing, Lu said.
Lu believes the colormetric tests are so easy a homeowner can perform them. It's simply a matter of dipping a small paper indicator – "like a dipstick" – into the test solution and checking the color of dots on the indicator.
"Purple indicates no lead. Red indicates a greater presence," Lu said.
Testing water for lead takes only about two minutes with the kits, he said. Testing paint for lead takes about 20 minutes.
Lead testing is important because the substance is highly toxic, particularly to children. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, children who are exposed to lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust can suffer behavioral problems, learning dis-abilities, seizures and even death.
Besides being able to identify lead, DzymeTech's technology can also identify mercury, uranium, magnesium and other toxic substances, Lu said.
Founded in 2005, DzymeTech moved its offices this year from the EnterpriseWorks facility in the University of Illinois Research Park to the Strata Decision Technology building one block away. The company is negotiating for lab space there as well.
This summer, DzymeTech – pronounced like "DesignTech" with an "m" sound instead of an "n" – received a $70,000 contract from the Environmental Protection Agency. That money will be used to determine the feasibility of developing the technology as a commercial product.
If the project's first phase is successful, DzymeTech hopes to get money for a second phase so a reliable, low-cost, user-friendly kit can be tested and developed.
Lu, who has been at the UI since 1994, said he would like to have a prototype by December. At this point, he's not sure how much the kits might sell for, but he said the market for heavy-metal detection is estimated at $650 million a year.
"At this point, our strategy is first getting the technology developed," Koziarz said.
But eventually DzymeTech may turn to a larger partner to help market it.
"Getting partners is the rapid way to get to market," he said. "It's the best way to commercialize a technology, the lowest-cost pathway."
DzymeTech was one of 10 companies in the EPA's six-state Midwest region that collectively received more than $1 million through the agency's Small Business Innovation Research program this year.
Besides the EPA money, DzymeTech has also gotten Small Business Technology Transfer grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, Lu said.
The company also received "a six-figure investment" from IllinoisVentures, the UI start-up services unit that's the lead investor in the firm.
Koziarz, who has been with DzymeTech about a year, has a doctorate in biochemistry. He previously worked at Abbott Laboratories, both as a chemist and as general manager of a business unit.
Koziarz said he was working as a consultant for IllinoisVentures when he was asked to help get DzymeTech off the ground. Though he continues to live in Highland Park, he said he visits Champaign at least once a month and still does consulting for IllinoisVentures.
Besides Koziarz, DzymeTech has three other part-time employees. James Babbs, who also previously worked for Abbott Labs, is the company's chief operating officer. DzymeTech also has two research scientists, Juewen Liu and Geng Lu, both of whom are doing postdoctoral work at the UI.
Despite the similarity in their last names, the research scientists are not related to each other or Yi Lu.
To test the kits, Yi Lu and his colleagues said they collected 100 dust samples from different homes and water samples from various sources, including Crystal Lake in Urbana, Lake Michigan and Urbana sewage water.
"Most samples were pretty low" in terms of lead content, Lu said.
Those whose homes showed high levels of lead were notified so they could either strip out the paint or treat it with immobilizers so it wouldn't peel off, he said.