Innovator: Stephen Quake

 
By Ira Boudway
     Jan. 13 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- The microchip
revolutionized electronics, making computations faster and
cheaper. Stephen Quake says his "microfluidic chip" could help do
the same for drug discovery, prenatal testing, and other genetics
applications.
     "We think about it as the biological equivalent of the
integrated circuit," says Quake, a 41-year-old bioengineering
professor at Stanford University. His chip dramatically
streamlines genetic research: An experiment that would have
required a week and 18,000 steps using standard lab equipment can
be done in three hours and 200 steps.
     Today, scientists deciphering DNA must painstakingly place
samples and reagents into trays, wait for reactions, and then
repeat the process over and over. Quake's chip automates this.
Its key component is a series of tiny rubber valves that can be
pinched closed by pressurized gas to form tiny chambers. Quake
and researchers in his lab came up with the recipe for the valves
while he was teaching at Caltech in 1998. The following year he
co-founded Fluidigm to figure out how to manipulate tens of
thousands of chambers, each about the size of a dot of ink, on a
patch of silicone rubber smaller than a saltine. Instead of
filling trays repeatedly, scientists load Fluidigm chips with
samples and reagents, and a countertop controller automatically
fills the rubber chambers with every possible combination.
     The chips, which Fluidigm makes in Singapore, assist in work
that requires looking for hundreds of genetic variations in
hundreds of samples. The Alaska Fish & Game Dept. uses them to
manage salmon runs. Because salmon are genetically programmed to
return to spawning spots, researchers can use gene analysis to
predict where they're headed. They catch salmon on their way to
breeding grounds, punch holes in their fins, treat the tissue to
isolate strands of DNA, and then run the samples through
Fluidigm's chips. The technology screens samples fast enough to
predict the course of whole salmon populations and guide fishing
fleets.
     "There's tremendous upside for this technology," says Kevin
Davies, the author of The $1,000 Genome. Fluidigm's chips have
shown promise for developing less-invasive forms of prenatal
testing, for instance, by screening the minute quantities of a
fetus' DNA found in the mother's blood. Fluidigm's
customers—primarily universities, national labs, seed companies,
fish and game managers, and drugmakers—pay $400 to $900 per chip.
     Quake has made headlines for genetics technology before. In
2009 he used a machine of his own invention, the $1 million
HeliScope, to analyze his DNA and become the eighth person to
have his genome decoded. As Davies puts it, Quake "has already
guaranteed himself an entry in the genome history books."

  EDUCATION

     A Stanford grad witha PhD in physics from Oxford

  INVENTION

     A rubber chip that takes the grunt work out of gene research

  APPLICATION

     Alaska uses the chips to predict salmon runs

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