American Elephants

Elizabeth Holmes’ Medical Tricorder: Instant Diagnosis by The Elephant's Child

Well, here’s another of those college dropouts. Elizabeth Holmes is a 29-year-old chemical and electrical engineer and entrepreneur who dropped out of Stanford as an undergraduate after founding a life sciences company called Theranos in 2003. She is the subject of this week’s weekend interview at the Wall Street Journal.  (Which may be behind a paywall)

The reality within our health-care system today is that when someone you care about gets really sick, by the time you find that out it’s most often too late to do anything about it. It’s heartbreaking. Because in those moments, there’s nothing you wouldn’t do to change it, and too often you’re helpless,” says Elizabeth Holmes. “We’re finding cancer when you have a tumor, or heart disease by virtue of the fact that you’re having a heart attack.

She wants to change that.

Hundreds of employees are now developing devices that automate and miniaturize more than a thousand laboratory tests from routine blood work to advanced genetic analyses. “Theranos’s processes are faster. cheaper, and more accurate that the conventional methods and require only microscopic blood volumes, not vial after vial of the stuff.” They need only a few droplets of blood, that go into a cartridge that is run through analyzers in a Theranos laboratory.

The company is launching a partnership with Walgreens for in-store sample-collection centers, with the first one in Palo Alto, then California — and then the world.

New diagnostic tools are one of the reasons for the advance of modern medicine. Tests account for 2% to 2.5% of health care spending, but drive most of doctor’s clinical decisions. There are 6.8 billion lab tests annually in the U.S. You have undoubtedly had plenty of blood tests, and you know how it goes, all those tubes and days of waiting till the doctor gets the results. He discovers a low count, prescribes a drug, then after a trial period, orders another round of tests, and so on. Theranos’s technology eliminates multiple trips to the lab because it can run any combination of tests at once, quickly, from a single microsample. This gives the doctor the best actionable information to make the best diagnosis at the time when it matters most.

Theranos’s technology is automated, standardized, and attempts to subtract human error from the process. … The medical promise of this speed and better information means catching disease in its earliest stages before the onset of symptoms. The company’s analytic tools might also help realize the possibilities of truly personalized medicine, as scientists gain a better understanding of the heterogeneity of disease and how to treat individuals based on their own bodies, not large averages.

Theranos will publish all of its retail prices on its website, and report margins-of-error variations online and on test results and order forms, a consumer oriented innovation in health care — creating problems for pathologists, lab scientists and technicians.

This may not be quite Doctor McCoy’s medical tricorder, but it’s getting close. It will take a little more time to get to the Emergency Medical Hologram Mark I (EMH) played by Robert Picardo.


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[…] with all the time involved. And there is good news on the technology front, I wrote about new diagnostic tools just entering the marketplace back in September, and there is big prize money waiting for whoever […]


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