Adam de la Zerda never saw health as a career path. He studied computer engineering and physics at the Technion, Israel’s technical university in Haifa, with the aim of going into quantum computing, “a really cool, sexy topic,” he thought at the time.
He was about to start on his Ph.D. at Stanford University when a good friend was diagnosed with a brain tumor and soon passed away. De la Zerda’s perspective changed.
“Very quickly I decided what I really wanted to do was to get into medicine,” he said at a March 22 talk sponsored by the American Technion Society, which supports the university in Israel. “Of course, at the time I didn’t really know what’s the role of an engineer like me in medicine.”
De la Zerda quickly found out. Now the 37-year-old is an assistant professor at Stanford Medicine and the founder of a rapid-testing product that is being deployed in the fight against Covid. He has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford, where he developed the photoacoustic molecular imaging technique with a colleague.
De la Zerda’s company, Visby, makes a small box billed as “the only instrument-free, rapid PCR test.” There’s an opening to insert a swab, and then buttons to push. A result is displayed right on the box.
The technology uses an existing technique, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), to do a genetic analysis of the material. Generally, to get an analysis, a PCR sample is sent to a lab and run through equipment — “sofa sized” machines, de la Zerda called them. But as an engineer, he wanted to create something simpler that could be used and disposed of like a pregnancy test, with results available within 30 minutes.
“Can we fuse the instrument and the cartridge into the same unit and package it so that the whole thing is a single-use product?” he said. “And ideally one that doesn’t cost you a million dollars.”
The answer was “yes.” The unit made by Visby can test for a range of infectious diseases. It wasn’t designed for Covid, but when the pandemic hit, the company pivoted to creating a package for the coronavirus test, which was approved for emergency use by the FDA in September 2020.
While there are other ways of testing for Covid (looking for antigens, for example), de la Zerda said PCR technology is better for finding asymptomatic infections and avoiding false positives.
“You think, ‘Oh, what’s the big deal? False-positive tests. Just quarantine the person for a few days and that’s it.’ If you’re in a nursing home, that’s a big deal,” he said. “Poor Grandma gets a false-positive test result, you’re moving her over to the Covid ward. If she did not have Covid before, now she might get Covid.”
While the aim is to make an over-the-counter test that can be purchased at a drugstore, right now the tests are being used by organizations that need to do quick testing, such as hospitals and health care facilities, as well as schools, laboratories, airports and corporate settings.
The idea is to make it a test that’s easy to get and that works with a range of infectious diseases, from flu to STIs. “Our long-term vision is to make this available to people at home, not just for Covid, but literally for any infection they care about,” de la Zerda said.
Visby in Palo Alto currently is making tens of thousands units per month. But that’s “not nearly enough,” de la Zerda said, and the company has received government funding to scale up.
It may be a far cry from quantum computing, but de la Zerda still has found himself on the cutting edge.
“Actually, it turns out engineers do have a role to play in medicine,” he said.