Invention: Simplified blood-testing system
Haemophobia – the fear of seeing blood, especially one’s own – might be hardwired into our self-preservation mechanisms. Yet when it comes to simple blood tests that could save lives, the fear of blood is anything but productive. Reluctance to have blood drawn for testing is a major hurdle for early detection strategies for influenza, a virus that causes between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths worldwide each year. A revolutionary technology from chemical engineer Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos, takes the sting and anxiety out of blood tests, requiring only a drop of blood to detect influenza, as well as a host of other conditions.
The point-of-care devices that Theranos produces can perform up to 70 different tests from a single drop of blood. This allows for a string of interrelated tests to be performed in real-time, eliminating follow-up visits and providing exceptional accuracy at an unbeatable price.
Apart from raising fears in many people, traditional needle-based blood tests are also time-consuming, error-prone and expensive. According to USA Today, US businesses administering blood tests charge €48.7 million (US$ 60 million) per year for their services. Elizabeth Holmes’ invention could cut these costs significantly – in terms of both time and money.
Offering greater accessibility to blood tests, virtual painless testing, and a much lower cost, Holmes’ invention helps patients get tested earlier and more frequently. In one example, a women with diabetes reduced the costs of a battery of tests she required from € 711 using traditional blood analysis methods down to € 28 using Holmes’s technology.
Theranos’ solutions might become important for developing countries, where treatment based on blood samples is urgently needed, and the cost of providing the equipment, skill, and conditions required for conventional blood tests is prohibitive.
The scale of Theranos’ operations began modest but is growing quickly. The company is in the middle of a roll-out plan to expand from an initial 21 Walgreens pharmacies, where the company first established collection centres, to many of the drugstores’ 8,200 locations throughout the U.S.
Three hospital groups also deploy Theranos’ labs services: UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, Dignity Health’s 21-state hospital group, and Intermountain Healthcare’s 22-hospital system in Utah and Idaho. Currently, Theranos is equipped to perform nearly 200 different tests.
The market Theranos addresses for clinical blood tests and medical laboratory testing is estimated to reach revenues of € 80.5 billion (ca. US$ 98.4 billion) by 2017. Compared to current levels, this indicates 90% growth. Worth an estimated € 7 billion (US$ 9 billion) in 2014, Theranos states that its prices never exceed half the Medicare reimbursement rate for each procedure. If Theranos’ services were widely adopted by Medicare, it could save the United States billions in healthcare costs, according to Fortune magazine.
How it works:
The technology can work on tiny samples due to the application of two methods: dilution and detectors. When a sample is diluted, it is possible to detect signals from multiple substances present in the sample in widely varying concentrations. This enables a more complex analysis, for example, when testing for the presence of the influenza virus or determining an individual patient’s reaction to medication. A second method involves the use of detectors, which provide counts based on photon activity. This count corresponds to the concentration of the substance being tested for in the sample.
Ms. Holmes enrolled early in college, was named a President’s Scholar and awarded the Merck award in Chemical Engineering. She speaks fluent Mandarin and applied this knowledge while working as a laboratory intern at the Genome Institute of Singapore, where she first began developing ideas for point-of-care blood tests.
Did you know?
Obviously Theranos’ business model is disrupting the lucrative market for laboratory tests. But doctors often still have a role to help interpret and clarify results so that patients understand a diagnosis. For its part, Theranos is working in conjunction with hospitals to outsource some of their bloodwork.