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Stanford microbiologist’s secret sauce for disease detection

Stanford microbiologist's secret sauce for disease detection

Last week, John Boothroyd, PhD, kicked off Stanford’s first Disease Detective lecture series with a fascinating tale about how his lab invented a simple biochemical “secret sauce” that revolutionized the detection of viral and bacterial infections like HIV, Hepatitis C and gonorrhea.

“It mostly started as a sketch on a piece of paper, then later became Gen-Probe’s core technology, which won them the 2004 National Medal of Technology,” explained Boothroyd, a Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology.

What Boothroyd invented, in collaboration with postdoctoral researchers James Burg and Philippe Pouletty, is called Transcription-Mediated Amplification.

Before this discovery, detecting a snippet of disease-specific DNA in a sample of cells was like finding a needle in a haystack. To increase a test’s accuracy, a lab technician would try to coax the target DNA into replicating itself through hours of tedious time-and- temperature-sensitive steps.

Boothroyd and his team’s new process consisted of a simple recipe of primers and enzymes that, after optimization by Gen-Probe, tricked a target snippet of DNA into automatically creating 10 billion copies of itself in less than an hour. This ultimately enabled the development of cheaper and faster disease tests.

In 2012 Boothroyd was ushered into the Stanford Inventor’s Hall of Fame because of this patent, which is among the top-ten revenue-generating inventions Stanford. He has six other patented inventions, including one that makes antigen production for the testing of toxoplasmosis infections far more efficient. Another detects toxoplasmosis in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women. He describes this research in the video above.

Looking back on his career choices, one thing that Boothroyd is grateful for is being able to combine his two loves at Stanford — basic research and teaching — while leaving the business of running a company to his patent licensees.

To the lecture hall filled with student researchers worried about the “postdocalypse,” the shortage of tenure-track research positions in academia, he gave this advice:

“I think the [postdocalypse] negativity is overstated. You have to have faith in yourself. You have to do what you want to do. If you’re enjoying your work and it’s a stepping stone to where you’re going, relax and see what happens.”

The next Disease Detective lecture will be held during fall quarter 2014. Watch for details on the Stanford Predictives and Diagnostics Accelerator webpage.

Previously: Patrick House discusses Toxoplasma gondii, parasitic mind control and zombies, Cat guts, car crashes, and warp-speed Toxoplasma infections, and NIH study supports screening pregnant women for toxoplasmosis

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