Theranos redefines point-of-care testing

July 19, 2015
I surmise that the secret behind Theranos' low-cost medical testing is photonics.
Gail Overton 720

Looking at the medical bill for my husband's last lipid (cholesterol) panel that totaled around $60, it's easy to see why the six seats at my local Phoenix, AZ Walgreens pharmacy are usually full of self-diagnosing patients waiting for "direct testing" by the Theranos Wellness Center within the store--especially considering the $9.21 that Theranos charges for that same lipid panel.

Theranos opened its first in-store Wellness Center in Palo Alto where the company is headquartered. In November 2013 it expanded outside California and opened its first two Wellness Centers in Phoenix, AZ. The Theranos "test menu" advertises more than 250 individual tests ranging from blood typing at $4 to cancer antigen 15-3 for a little more than $14 as well as a number of popular panels like lipids, metabolic, drug screens, and hepatitis ranging from $5 to $50. The company boasts that the tests cost 50% of what Medicare charges and more importantly, the tests are covered by Medicare and other major medical insurance plans.

In Arizona, House Bill 2645 now makes it legal for individuals to take any lab test offered at any of the 40 Theranos Wellness Centers without a doctor's prescription or order. In short, Theranos brings a whole new meaning to the term "point-of-care" medical testing as the tests are run at the site in as little as four hours rather than being sent out to a laboratory. Most online sources say that Theranos can run as many as 30 tests on one small drop of blood from a pin prick deposited in a small "nanotainer". Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes (pictured below; image credit: Wired) studied microfluidics and nanotechnology at Stanford before starting the company. Scanning the Internet for potential clues on how the tests are accomplished reveals that many news outlets experience the same frustration: Theranos is not divulging what technology it uses.
So by now you might be asking why I'm even writing a blog on Theranos? The reason is simple: I surmise that the secret behind Theranos' low-cost lab testing is photonics. Fortunately, a little digging yields a few clues. A recent job posting for Theranos specifically requires that potential candidates "Must have hands-on experience working in the field of assay development, with optical methods, and ELISA, chemiluminescence, and absorbance." Online patents also yield some answers: In a detection and quantification of analytes patent from Theranos, the text reads: "A system for detecting at least one analyte in a bodily fluid from a subject, the system comprising: a light source comprising a coating of luminescent paint and having an emission spectrum; an assay assembly having one or more reactants to react with the bodily fluid to yield a colored product having an absorbance spectrum encompassing at least one wavelength within the emission spectrum from the light source; and a detector that detects absorption of the at least one wavelength of light directed through the colored product, wherein said absorption of said at least one wavelength through the colored product is indicative of the presence of the analyte in said bodily fluid." Apparently, unlike standard laboratory tests, viruses and other diseases are not cultured; instead, their DNA markers are detected. Among the videos on the Theranos YouTube feed is one from their CEO on how Theranos redefines medical diagnosis (see below).

As Holmes says, Theranos enables individuals to take charge of their own destiny through self-diagnosis (hypochondriacs rejoice!). Seriously, we all know that early diagnosis improves a person's chances of surviving a major medical problem.

Even though the details of the Theranos technology still elude the public, I'd like to think that optics and photonics is enabling this point-of-care revolution from which we can all benefit (unless you are a well-paid laboratory technician that may soon need to seek employment at your neighborhood Walgreens).

About the Author

Gail Overton | Senior Editor (2004-2020)

Gail has more than 30 years of engineering, marketing, product management, and editorial experience in the photonics and optical communications industry. Before joining the staff at Laser Focus World in 2004, she held many product management and product marketing roles in the fiber-optics industry, most notably at Hughes (El Segundo, CA), GTE Labs (Waltham, MA), Corning (Corning, NY), Photon Kinetics (Beaverton, OR), and Newport Corporation (Irvine, CA). During her marketing career, Gail published articles in WDM Solutions and Sensors magazine and traveled internationally to conduct product and sales training. Gail received her BS degree in physics, with an emphasis in optics, from San Diego State University in San Diego, CA in May 1986.

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