Efficient tools to analyse nucleic acids
Finalist for the European Inventor Award 2021
Nucleic acids - DNA and RNA - are the biomolecules that store and transmit genetic information but studying them requires isolating them from other materials such as bacteria or viruses. However, the process used to extract them in the past was complex and time ‑consuming, and often required the use of toxic chemicals.
Frustrated by this limitation, Metin Colpan set about finding a new process as part of his PhD study of a virus affecting tomato plants and coconut palms at the Darmstadt Institute of Technology in 1978. Building on his biochemistry training, he developed a simpler, cheaper method involving exposing a solution containing viral RNA to a porous matrix made of modified silica gel, which allowed for more comprehensive and efficient trapping of the target material. His patented invention has since become a standard method recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and used by researchers all over the world, changing the way they can access, purify and understand genetic data in DNA and RNA. This breakthrough has led to the improved detection of disease, the identification of gene variations that could affect treatment and the development of new drug therapies.
Providing fast, easy-to-use tools for researchers
Colpan commercialised his invention through Qiagen, the company he co-founded in 1984. To overcome an initial lack of interest in his technique in Germany in the 1980s, Colpan travelled to the US, touring university laboratories to promote his invention. Qiagen has since become one of European biotech's success stories, and the first German company to go public on the US Nasdaq exchange. The company, which invests 10% of its revenue back into research and development, employs more than 5 300 people worldwide and sells hundreds of products inspired by Colpan's invention, from veterinary diagnostics to food safety. It has also developed a range of COVID-19 innovations, including tests for antigens, antibodies and T cells, which have contributed to a better understanding of disease progression and immunity to the novel coronavirus.
Today, Colpan remains active in Qiagen, serving as Supervisory Director and Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee. The "double immigrant", whose family fled the Soviet Union to Turkey before moving to Germany, continues to combine his entrepreneurial instincts with his passion for the natural sciences, working to find new applications for his invention that can help researchers to make new genetic discoveries.
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