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Blood tests in minutes, not days or weeks

Cambridge firm’s device could be a game changer, especially where labs are scarce

After working under the radar for years, a Cambridge biotechnology firm has unveiled a portable, laptop-size gadget that promises to make it easier and faster for practitioners in the field to instantly test for diseases such as AIDS and malaria.

The Gene Radar device, from Nanobiosym, is designed to do in minutes the kind of advanced blood work it takes traditional labs days to perform. It uses sophisticated chips and a mobile device loaded with specialized software to analyze droplets of blood or saliva for diseases. It is in clinical trials in Rwanda for diagnosis of HIV infection.

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The company is one of 12 international finalists in a prestigious contest sponsored by Nokia Corp. for breakthroughs in health care technologies. The winners will be announced Wednesday at the Health 2.0 conference in Silicon Valley, with a $525,000 grand prize at stake.

The company had kept a low profile since its founding in 2004. It has largely been run using government grants to make advancements in the use of nanotechnology, which involves manipulating objects at the molecular level and is increasingly being used in medical research and drug development. But the Health 2.0 conference will serve as a coming-out party for Nanobiosym.

“We’re working on some very disruptive, next-generation technologies that the health care system we have is going to take some time to absorb,” said Anita Goel, the company’s founder and a noted physicist who studied at MIT and Harvard University.

If adopted widely, she said, Gene Radar technology could replace the costly lab equipment that most hospitals use to perform blood tests and give practitioners who do not have access to modern hospitals a powerful diagnostic tool. Before it could become commercially available in the United States, it would be subject to Food and Drug Administration review.

Goel has grand expectations that the company’s initial product will give people who have not had access to sophisticated diagnostic equipment in labs the ability to detect and treat diseases at earlier stages.

As a result, she said, many lives could be saved.

Access to quality, low-cost diagnoses in the developing world will be critical to improving treatment, said Sheila Davis, chief nursing officer for Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides health care in developing parts of the world.

“Having point-of-access diagnostics is really the key to providing timely care,” Davis said. “Anything we can do to reduce that time period is critical.”

Before launching Gene Radar, Nanobiosym was working on nanotechnology applications to more precisely and accurately perform disease detection or detect chemical contamination for the military. The firm has received at least $1.42 million in government research grants from such agencies as the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.

Bringing this technology to the consumer market could have profound implications for medicine, said Mark Winter, senior director of the Nokia Sensing , XChallenge, which named Nanobiosym a finalist in August. The challenge is part of the larger XPrize competitions that started in 1995 to honor socially conscious innovation.

“It will impact the commercial laboratory business in significant ways,” Winter said. “These technologies promise to make this [analysis] much more instantaneously, and vastly less expensive.”

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.

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