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Adam Maley on Point-Of-Care Sepsis Diagnostics

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

Adam Maley enjoyed doing fundamental research, but when he saw an opportunity to work on diagnostics that would have near-term and real-world impact, he could not have been more excited. Now, his team is working to use Simoa to create a point-of-care sepsis diagnostic tool for infants. Learn more about Adam in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.

What are you working on?

In Dr. Walt’s lab, we are trying to make point-of-care diagnostics for various diseases. By point-of-care diagnostics, I mean testing at the time and place where the patient is receiving treatment instead of having to transport materials back and forth from the lab.

In the lab we have a single molecule array platform called Simoa (pictured on the right), which is the state-of-the-art technology for detecting low-abundance proteins. This is accomplished by isolating and counting individual molecules in microwell arrays. The problem is that it is a large instrument that requires highly trained personnel to use, so it’s not really amenable for operation outside the lab.

We are working to enable the Simoa technology for point of care. Our goal is to be able to put a blood or saliva sample into the instrument and get a readout that’s easily identifiable by the end-user without requiring extensive data analysis. We also want to miniaturize it, so it’s less cumbersome and able to be used in a clinical setting.

I’m specifically working on adapting this technology to use as a diagnostic for sepsis in infants.

What real-world problem does this solve?

There is no good way to diagnose sepsis because there are no clinical symptoms specific to this disease. The only way to really diagnose it is to isolate the pathogenic bacterium from blood, which takes 24-48 hours. Diagnosing sepsis in infants is especially difficult because it’s challenging to get even half a milliliter of blood from an infant.

This image shows the Simoa technology that Adam works on in action. After being sealed into the microwells on a Simoa plate, any beads that are bound to a labeled version of the target molecule glow fluorescently (green), while beads that contain an unlabeled target molecule remain dark. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

We’re working on a project that would ideally detect sepsis in saliva by measuring inflammatory proteins, since sepsis is a dysregulated response to infection in the inflammatory system. Simoa is sensitive enough to measure biomarker concentration in saliva and would produce results in only an hour or two. The test would be far less invasive, as collecting saliva samples from infants is far easier than collecting blood samples. This would also allow for serial measurements, where you measure and then measure again 48 hours later, which allows clinicians to measure a patient’s progress and response to treatment and antibiotics.

What are some challenges that you face?

Just like in any research project, you can go days where experiments may not be going how you expected. You may not get the results you’re looking for, but I think it’s important to remember that persistence is key. Whatever the results, every experiment you do is telling you something. You have to figure out what that means so you can improve the next experiment and eventually get the results you need to reach your goal. Accepting when things fail and learning from them instead of giving up is a valuable lesson I’ve learned in the research process.

What inspired you to get into this field?

I never really got into science until I took chemistry in high school. When I did, everything just clicked. I thought it was so interesting. Then, when I was in undergrad I got involved in some research at my college. I found it exciting to work on projects that nobody had ever worked on before, which sparked a passion for research.

It is really exciting to be able to come to the Wyss and work on cutting-edge technology development, that aligns with my research interests, and is aimed at solving real-world problems in diagnostics.

Adam Maley

When I was in grad school at the University of California, Irvine, I did some research on biosensing and biomaterials. As I was looking for my next step, I saw Dr. Walt’s lab and what he was doing at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Wyss. I was inspired by Dr. Walt’s solution-oriented approach: technology doesn’t do any good if it doesn’t leave the lab. I knew that he had a track record of translating technologies into commercial products, as the Scientific Founder of Illumina Inc. and Quanterix Corp, and I was drawn to the fact that he was doing this for medicine where these technologies can have a meaningful impact on society.  It is really exciting to be able to come to the Wyss and work on cutting-edge technology development, that aligns with my research interests, and is aimed at solving real-world problems in diagnostics.

What continues to motivate and excite you?

The fact that what I’m working on has practical applications. A lot of times you can work in a research lab, publish papers, and maybe write a thesis, but nothing really happens. It’s really amazing to be able to work at the Wyss and the Brigham where I know that my research can have a real impact.

I’m working on solving a problem that most people can personally see affecting their lives. People are excited by what I do, and this excitement motivates me.

Adam Maley

With diagnostics, I think unfortunately most people have had a friend or family member that has had cancer or another disease where treatment could have gone differently if the disease had been detected sooner. I’m working on solving a problem that most people can personally see affecting their lives. People are excited by what I do, and this excitement motivates me. Like with anything, it’s possible to get bogged down in the day-to-day. Then I’ll meet somebody and tell them what I’m working on, and they get excited. I feed off their energy and it reignites the excitement in me.

When you’re not in the lab, how do you like to spend your time?

I really enjoy traveling. My goal is to visit all 50 states – I’m at 42 right now. I love visiting national parks. My favorite was Glacier National Park in Montana. It was really cool because there was so much to do there – white water rafting, horseback riding, and hiking. If I’m in the area, I like cooking and being active. I’m also pretty involved with my church.

If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?

I would be a high school teacher, probably chemistry. In addition to research, I really love teaching. Chemistry is the class where everything clicked for me, so it just makes sense.

What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?

It’s exciting. It’s also a privilege to be able to work on this kind of translational research. What I did before was more fundamental science. To be able to come work with amazing people somewhere like the Wyss, solving a real-world problem, is something that should not be taken for granted.

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