Investors lost over $9 billion on Theranos, the diagnostics testing company run by Elizabeth Holmes that was exposed as a fraud. Worse yet, patients received inaccurate test results, imperilling their health. But what if asking one simple question could’ve prevented all this?
In the book Editing Humanity, Keith Davies notes that Theranos’ technology had no foundation in peer-reviewed, published research. The always-astute John Ioannidis pointed this out as early as 2015. Theranos published a single paper in 2018, after the company was already exposed as fradulent and was near bankruptcy. Theranos made incredible claims for its technology, but without peer review by respected journal, there was no one to check if those claims were actually true. (Theranos had filed patent applications, but that doesn’t necessarily provide the same level of detail and review.)
This stands in contrast to many other biotech companies, such as several in the CRISPR area (Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics, etc.) whose approach grows out of research published in major journals. Also, such companies have major scientists as co-founders, not a 19 year old unknown.
I am considering getting involved in early-stage biotech investment, so asking “What papers can you point me to that underlie your technology?” is a question I plan to ask in the future. That may be able to weed out some weaker companies and potential frauds.
For more background on Theranos, I strongly recommend the outstanding book Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. I listened to it as an Audible audiobook. It was read by Will Damron, whose voice is outstanding.
I also hear excellent things about the ABC News podcast series The Dropout, which details Holmes’ path from Stanford student to billionaire to accused criminal awaiting trial today. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I look forward to getting a chance soon!