Lateral flow tests, when used to diagnose the presence of infectious diseases, are relatively inexpensive and elegantly simple to use. They involve applying a biological sample—of blood or urine, for instance—to one end of a test strip. As the sample flows up the strip, it encounters various reagents, which are designed to produce a chemical reaction when they come in contact with a particular target, such as a protein, bacteria, parasite or virus. If your target is present, you’ll get a clear visual signal, an “aha” moment, like seeing a bar appear on a pregnancy test moments after peeing on a stick.
The key to this technology—and what makes it especially crucial for the developing world—is all the research that goes into it behind the scenes to make it so portable, affordable and easy to use at the point of execution. That’s precisely the legwork that a number of scientists at the IV Lab are putting in “under the hood,” says Helen Hsieh, a research scientist who works in the Flow-based Diagnostics group (also known as FlowDx).
Helen came to Intellectual Ventures about three years ago after spending more than 20 years with Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), a medical technology company that manufactures and sells medical devices, instrument systems and reagents. Today, she’s part of a team focused largely on increasing the sensitivity of diagnostic tests for malaria and tuberculosis. The more sensitive the tool, the sooner you can pick up the disease before it has further multiplied. That can make a huge difference in treatment, and also make you more certain you aren’t missing any patients who carry the pathogen at lower levels (Helen was lead author on a paper about some of this LFA research published last year).
In addition to its impact on global health, Helen’s role features two of her other favorite things—lots of creative troubleshooting and “cool shiny instruments”—and feeds her lifelong belief that science should be fun!
Cross-Country Career Shift
Helen, who split her childhood between Pennsylvania and Alabama, studied chemistry as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and then again for her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina (UNC). She developed expertise in both biological and physical chemistry along the way, and that experience, as Helen was wrapping up her doctoral program, helped her land the position with BD at its research center in Research Triangle Park, just down the road from UNC.
She would end up working for BD for two decades, with her research focused on developing diagnostic tests for infectious and chronic diseases. One of her favorite projects was the BD ProbeTec ET™, a nucleic acid amplification system used to detect chlamydia, gonorrhea and other STDs. “A lot of times you work on something and it doesn’t actually go anywhere,” says Helen, “so that was nice in that it became a product.”
After relatives in Seattle coaxed Helen to add the Pacific Northwest to her search list for new job opportunities, Helen discovered an intriguing opening in the FlowDx group at IV Lab, which was hiring several scientists with experience developing assays—laboratory procedures, in this case, designed to detect malaria or TB. It was a perfect fit for her.
Helen has thoroughly enjoyed the experience so far, very much including the collaborative atmosphere at the Lab. “I like that everybody is willing to share knowledge and advice,” she says. “You have such a different group of people—biologists with experience in tissue culture, and engineers—and the engineers will suggest something that the biologist just wouldn’t have thought of, and vice versa. You’ve got that cross-pollination. Because the engineers are in the building with us, you’ve got that conversation going.”
Life at the Lab has also rekindled the more playful side of science for Helen—the simple joy of discovery, she says, you often see in 8-year-olds when you’re explaining something cool. “There’s a giant [Babbage] calculator downstairs, there’s literally a rocket engine, there’s the [dino] tail. Sometimes science is just fun!”