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David Walt to be inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame

Wyss Core Faculty member David Walt recognized for his invention of Microwell Arrays that fundamentally changed our possibilities of DNA and protein analysis

By Benjamin Boettner

04/11/2017 - Medford/Somerville, Mass. - David Walt, University Professor of Chemistry, poses for a photograph on April 11, 2017. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)
David Walt, Wyss Institute Core Faculty. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

(BOSTON) — Wyss Institute Core Faculty member David Walt, along with 18 other innovation pioneers, was announced to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) at CES® as an “innovation game-changer who has transformed our world”.

The NIHF was founded and supported in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and has been recognizing inventors and U.S. patent holders, and their legacies as role models since 1973. It honors inventors for having improved society and creating new industries, and, with its education programs, aims to provide opportunity for each class of inductees to engage and inspire the next generation of innovators to help them keep transforming the world.

“I am honored to have been selected by the NIHF as a member of this year’s class and look forward to sharing my experiences as a scientist and entrepreneur with young minds through NIHF’s education programs,” said Walt, Ph.D., who is a Core Faculty member at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. He also is the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard Medical School, Professor of Pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor.

The NIHF recognized Walt’s development of ‘microwell arrays’ in 1996 as a groundbreaking innovation that revolutionized the field of genetic analysis, accelerated the understanding of numerous human diseases, and is now being used to develop new molecular diagnostic approaches in many areas of need.

With microwell arrays, Walt opened the opportunity for clinical researchers to detect and analyze single molecules that are suspended in tiny volumes of liquid in individual microwells. This capability has radically reshaped the process of genetic and proteomic analysis around the world, and enabled the cost of DNA sequencing and genotyping to plummet nearly a millionfold in the last decade. In 1998, he co-founded the company Illumina, which now holds more than 90% of the next-generation sequencing market.

David Walt to be inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame
This image shows a microwell array in which single DNA or protein molecules can be individually analyzed in each well. Credit: Felice Frankel

In technology used by Illumina, Walt combined the concept of microwell arrays with that of BeadArrays, in which individual wells of arrays are preloaded with beads carrying specific DNA-binding sequences to facilitate genetic analysis of complex DNA samples in a highly parallel fashion. Later, in 2007, Walt expanded the microwell array principle to also detect proteins with a sensitivity 100-1000x higher than the best available assays, and commercialized the resulting Simoa technology by co-founding the company Quanterix. Following DNA and protein-related applications, his group applied microwell arrays also to the analysis of single cells that can be sorted into individual wells and studied by different means. Together, clinical microwell array applications now span areas as diverse as screening embryos for genetic defects before in vitro fertilization, studying disease in preserved or frozen tissue samples, identifying individuals’ metabolic profiles to ensure proper drug doses, and improving crop disease resistance.

Walt’s group at both the Wyss Institute, where he is leader of the Institute’s Diagnostics Accelerator, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital is now working towards new diagnostic approaches by using microwell array-based and other technologies and translating them into products that can non-invasively and more accurately diagnose and assess the states of certain forms of cancer, infectious and neurodegenerative diseases.

The NIHF’s Class of 2019 will be honored in a two-day event on May 1st in the Illumination Ceremony held at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in the USPTO Headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia; and on May 2nd in the 47th Annual National Inventors Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony held in the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

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