Fallout of Elizabeth Holmes’s Stanford Theranos promised a revolution in blood testing that never came.
Now, in a research paper published Thursday, Stanford researchers say they’ve accomplished what Theranos couldn’t: They’ve developed a new approach that can measure thousands of molecules from about one drop of blood.
Genetics department chair and senior author Michael Snyder said his lab has combined a microsampling device with multi-omnic technology, a biological analysis approach, to measure thousands of molecules from 10 microliters of blood (about a single drop).
“I call it ‘Theranos that works,'” Snyder said. “Medicine is very outdated; now you go to a doctor, they draw a lot of blood, they measure 10 to 15 things. What we’re trying to do is measure thousands of molecules so we can get a much clearer picture of what’s going on.”
Snyder continued, explaining the possibilities of their research: “We can track your metabolic markers, your immune markers, even some neurological markers that can provide insight into your mental health.”
It’s a bold claim, but according to Stanford professor John Ioanndis, who was one of the first to publicly question Theranos in a column for the Journal of American Medicine Association, he has scientific backing. Ioanndis is not affiliated with Snyder’s research.
“Theranos was notorious for their low-key science,” he said. According to Ioanndis, a major difference between this study and Theranos is that this paper has been peer-reviewed and vetted by other scientists.
Currently, blood tests typically require 10 to 15 milliliters of blood. The research team tested many microsampling devices to try and reduce the amount of blood used for analysis, eventually opting for the Mitra, a portable device that can be used for remote sample collection.
From there, they tested multiple extraction techniques to effectively measure the lipids, metabolites and proteins, as well as markers of inflammation. After comparing their findings to conventional blood testing methods, they found that their microsampling yielded accurate results.
“Traditional blood samples are very painful,” said Xiaotao Shen, a postdoctoral scientist in genetics and one of the paper’s four lead authors. “Using this method, we can get reports from people about their diet. We can see that people have different reactions to food. We can get a lot of data from just 10 microlitres.”
One person’s life has already been changed by this investigation: Snyder himself. Snyder found that there was an inverse correlation between his caffeine content and his sleep, which led him to consume less caffeine and improve his sleep.
“It’s really going to change things,” Snyder said. “You get a much more accurate measure of people’s markings.”
While there are similarities between this study and what Holmes claimed Theranos could do, there are many differences that suggest this study has more legitimacy than the now-defunct startup.
“Theranos said, ‘I’m going to disrupt healthcare, I’m going to change clinical practice, I’m going to change the way medicine is done,'” Ioanndis said. “This investigation is still preliminary. There have to be a lot of other studies before I can say this is something you can use for medical care.”
Also, unlike Theranos, the data from this study is widely available for the public to look at. “We’re one of the few groups that makes all of our data available,” Snyder said. “We try to be as transparent as possible.”
Since the completion of the first study, Snyder and his lab are conducting more studies on this research. “We can now measure samples from thousands of people quite easily,” Snyder said. “We can now do larger studies. We can also do very detailed studies that we couldn’t do before.”
While Holmes claimed her technology could detect early stages of cancer, Snyder’s method isn’t quite at that stage yet — though it may one day succeed, according to Snyder and Shen.
Since the development and findings of this article, Snyder has split his research into two new companies: Rhythm, a chronic disease company that is trying to find markers for better diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 and chronic fatigue syndromes, and Iollo, which will develop health profiles provide for patients of 650 molecules in someone’s blood.
“What we’re doing now is a research project,” Snyder said. “Even though we are moving into a commercial direction, more needs to be done. It’s all part of our vision to try to transform medicine.”