The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)

Trivial Pursuits: The Decline of Scientific Research

Paul Scherz

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 3)

In 2015, Forbes magazine proclaimed Elizabeth Holmes “the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire.”1 About a decade earlier, when she was nineteen, she dropped out of Stanford to transform the medical industry by introducing a faster, cheaper kind of blood test requiring only a finger stick rather than a needle jab in the vein.2 The company she founded to produce and administer this technology, Theranos, raised more than $400 million in venture capital and came to be valued at an estimated $9 billion.3 Here was a classic Silicon Valley and biotech success story: By breaking free of old institutions, a young genius could design a new device that would radically disrupt the medical testing industry. Or so the story briefly ran.

Reality was less exciting. Holmes, it seems, had exploited tremendous hype and her father’s extensive business connections to amass financial backing for a technology that never demonstrably worked.4 Her fall from grace was swift. Forbes changed her company’s value from $4.5 billion to $0, and this past July the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services banned her from operating blood-testing facilities for two years.5

But even if Theranos had delivered on its promises, what would its product really have amounted to? Holmes promised a technology that would transform health care and even the relationship people have to their own bodies. But once you set aside Theranos’s self-generated mythology, all that its founder seems to have attempted was to make one area of the already successful and profitable field of medical testing a little bit cheaper and easier for patients. If you didn’t like having your blood drawn from a vein, Theranos promised, you would never again have to feel the sting of a hypodermic needle.

In trying to turn humdrum research into a transformative medical disruption, Theranos was not unusual: Early biotech successes such as Genentech’s artificial insulin also followed this model, providing nothing more than a high-tech alternative to existing treatments.6 But it’s not even clear in Theranos’s case that a cheaper testing technology would have benefited public health. Contemporary health care, as many have noted, already suffers from excessive testing and subsequent overtreatment.

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Endnotes

  1. “The World’s Billionaires: #435 Elizabeth Holmes,” Forbes online, http://www.forbes.com/profile/elizabeth-holmes/. Accessed August 22, 2016.
  2. Ken Auletta, “Blood, Simpler,” The New Yorker, December 15, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/12/15/blood-simpler.
  3. Abigail Stevenson, “World’s Youngest Female Billionaire—Next Steve Jobs?” CNBC online, September 23, 2015, http://www.cnbc.com/2015/09/23/worlds-youngest-female-billionaire-next-steve-jobs.html.
  4. The first of these reports was by John Carreyrou: “Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled with Its Blood-Test Technology,” Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2015.
  5. John Carreyou, Michael Siconalfi, and Christopher Weaver, “Theranos Dealt Sharp Blow as Elizabeth Holmes Banned from Operating Labs,” Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-regulator-bans-theranos-ceo-elizabeth-holmes-from-operating-labs-for-two-years-1467956064.
  6. For an account of the early biotechnology industry, see Nicolas Rasmussen, Gene Jockeys: Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

Paul Scherz is assistant professor of moral theory and ethics at the Catholic University of America and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He previously did doctoral and postdoctoral work in genetics and developmental biology and published widely in the field. His forthcoming book is Science as a Vocation in an Entrepreneurial Age.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.3 (Fall 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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