June 4, 2012 at 1:22 AM ET
Stephen Quake, a prolific inventor whose application of physics to biology has led to breakthroughs in drug discovery, genome analysis and personalized medicine, has won the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, a prestigious award for outstanding innovators.
“A big part of physics is trying to figure out how to measure things,” Quake, who is a professor of bioengineering and applied physics at Stanford University, told me. “And so I get interested in a biological problem [and] figure out a way to measure it.”
Among his many inventions is the biological equivalent of the integrated circuit, so-called microfluidic large scale integration.
“I got interested in trying to automate biology the way the integrated circuit automated computation,” he said. “And so you need a chip that, instead of having wires and transistors on it, has pipes and valves and pumps and things.”
“It is little miniaturized plumbing. It’s got up to tens of thousands of mechanical valves on a chip, and all kinds of plumber’s nightmares.”
Applications of the technology are myriad, including Quake’s own work on single-cell genomics. Others have used it to help determine the structure of proteins, including for the Ebola virus and H5N1 influenza virus, for example.
Another Quake innovation is a non-invasive pre-natal test for Down syndrome which is based on analysis of blood taken from a mother’s arm, which includes fetal DNA.
“What we do is count molecules,” he explained.
In the case of a woman carrying a baby with Down syndrome, the test finds a “slight excess of chromosome-21 molecules because the baby is putting in three copies of chromosome 21 for every two copies of any other chromosome, whereas the mom is putting in two for two,” he said.
The test was commercially launched this year via Verinata Health and is expected to make riskier pre-natal tests such as amniocentesis obsolete.
“I think shortly we’ll be able to see essentially the whole genome,” Quake said.
The innovator is currently working on techniques to sequence the region of the genome that focuses on a person’s immune system. Such techniques could have applications ranging from making organ transplants easier to treating autoimmune disease. In 2012, he cofounded ImmuMetrix to commercialize applications of the technology.
Quake notes that “virtually all” of his inventions were the fruits of collaborations, and he advises any would-be innovator to find aspiring mentors to work with in their endeavors.
He said he also reads widely – “across science and more broadly across the literature, because many of the ideas I get come from other areas.”
One more way Quake gets his creative juices flowing is by climbing mountains to ski down them. He’s climbed and skied most of Mount Shasta in California, and has laid down ski tracks with a group of friends on Asahidake, an active volcano that's the highest peak on Hokkaido in Japan.
“It was awesome,” he said. “What can be more fun than climbing and skiing and talking about science with your buddies?”
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.